Smoking is bad.
Of course, the most immediate thought that comes into people’s minds about the badness of smoking is the health effects. Health effects are a legitimate concern, and it is worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing that aspect. However, for this post, I am interested in two moral objections to smoking – ways in which a smoker should understand that they are not only being impractical, but they are contributing to harm to others.
Tobacco companies make their product to take advantage of some facts easily understood in the context of desire utilitarianism. It takes advantage of the fact that future desires cannot influence present-day action. An agent acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his current desires, given his beliefs. The only way a future desire can influence a current action is if the agent has a current desire that future desires are fulfilled.
Even with such a desire, the current desire that future desires are fulfilled are in conflict with other desires. A desire for sex. A desire for high-calorie food. An aversion to pain.
A desire to smoke.
So, this desire that future desires are fulfilled can easily be outweighed by other current desires. When that happens, the agent who obtains the fulfillment of the more and stronger current desires, ends up with future desires being thwarted.
Tobacco companies have invested huge amounts of money making sure that their product creates a current desire that can outweigh any desire that future desires are fulfilled. This is precisely how they are able to bring about the slow and agonizing deaths of countless people for a profit. The desire that future desires be fulfilled is the champion of preventing those future slow and agonizing deaths, and they are up against a laboratory-engineered desire for a nicotine high (or, more precisely, a current aversion to nicotine withdraw).
We are looking at an industry full of people who, quite literally, imposes a slow and agonizing death on millions of people every year, for money. And not a lot of money either – at least not once it gets split up each person takes their share. Even the people at the top are inflicting slow and agonizing deaths on millions of people for just a few million dollars. An estimate, admittedly drawn off the top of my head, is that the leaders of these organizations bring about one agonizing death per dollar.
This is where the moral dimension comes in.
A person who buys a pack of cigarettes is somebody who is so selfish that he is willing to contribute to this organization that slowly kills millions of people each year for profit, just to avoid a nicotine fit. “Yes, my avoiding this nicotine fit is so important to me, that I do not care about the fact that I am supporting such an industry. The slow and agonizing deaths of others that I help to bring about is nothing compared to my avoiding this nicotine fit.”
These are not the desires of a good person. The are not desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others – these are desires that, very much so, tend to thwart the desires of others, and to make the world a worse place than they would have otherwise been.
These are desires that people generally have a lot of very good reasons to respond to with condemnation and punishment.
Now, the issue of punishment has to be weighed against the harms done by creating a black-market industry. It may well be the case that a prohibition on tobacco will do more harm than good by turning a huge section of the population into criminals. These factors may outweigh the positive value of punishing people who contribute to the desire to smoke. But they do not negate that value.
The other moral argument against smoking is that those who smoke lead others into the same habit. The best way to teach good behavior to children is to teach by example. The example that a smoker sets for children is an example that leads children into smoking. To the degree that a child is surrounded by people who condemn smoking, then to that degree a child will be less likely to take up smoking herself. To the degree that a child is surrounded by smokers, to that degree the child is less likely to learn an aversion to smoking.
So, this is a second way in which smokers contribute to making the world a worse place than it would otherwise be.
And let’s not deny the fact that the smoking industry thrives on getting children hooked on smoking. The trick is to get to a child whose ‘desire that future desires be fulfilled’ is weaker and far less developed, to build within their brain a desire to smoke that can more easily outweigh the desire to fulfill future desires. Hopefully (at least from the tobacco industry’s point of view), the child’s desire to smoke (caused by repeated nicotine hits on her young brain) will grow faster than her desire that future desires be fulfilled.
When the child reaches adulthood, she will be more than willing to pay out one or two hundred dollars each month to support an industry that inflicts agonizing deaths on others for profit. She will be more than willing to be yet another living example that will help the tobacco industry infect another set of young minds that see these people as examples.
Many smokers complain that they object to being treated like second-class citizens. They complain that others (non-smokers) look down on them and see them as somehow lesser beings.
Yet, my point is that they are worthy of this moral condemnation. If cigarettes did not exist, then people will live longer and healthier lives and many who are now suffering – including non-smokers who are suffering through the slow and agonizing death of a loved one – would be better off. It may not be practical to destroy the smoking industry through legislation, but it is certainly possible to reduce its effect by using the tools of social condemnation. To the degree that these tools work to prevent the desire-thwarting caused by tobacco smoking, to that degree people have reason to use these tools.
The person that objects that smoking itself fulfills desires misses an important part of desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism does not evaluate actions according to whether they fulfill desires. Desire utilitarianism evaluates desires according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. The desire to smoke is a desire that tends to thwart other desires – the future desires of the smoker, the desires of those who are concerned with the smoker, the desires of those whose children may take up smoking and suffer its effects.
Desire utilitarianism calls for using social forces to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires. Given the fact that the desire to smoke is such a bad desire, it is clearly a desire that society has reason to bring social forces against.
The tobacco industry will spend huge amounts of money saying something different – in the same way that the energy industry spends huge amounts of money spreading lies about the effect of carbon emission on global climate. They will hire expert marketers to create messages that are far more persuasive than a posting on a philosophy blog. They are an industry filled with people who think that one more dollar in their pocket is worth one more slow and agonizing death in the world, so it is only to be expected that they would do these things. But the scientifically engineered persuasiveness of their sophistry does not guarantee the truth of their conclusions.