Tuesday, January 22, 2008


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.


Richard F. said...

So how does Big Alcohol stack up against Big Tobacco in your rant? Much of what you stated can easily be translated to Big Alcohol. If you substitute things like "alcohol" and "drinking" for "tobacco" and "smoking", you'd find an easy fit. After reading it in an alcohol-directed tone, it puts a very different spin on something that is not only far more socially acceptable but far more easily accessible in public places.

I'd really like to see this rant with citations or footnotes considering how easily portions of it can be debunked lending that much of it is based on opinion and less on fact.

For example, I know a large number of people who don't smoke but their parents were 2-pack-a-day smokers. These people won't touch cigarettes at all but they sure will drink themselves under the table. I, like many people, can state that a child will more easily take to alcohol if their parents drink than smoke if their parents smoke. This has little to do with morality or aversion as you seem to posit so strongly and more to do with accessibility and social acceptance of the action.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

James W.

I also recommend against drinking alcohol. However, alcohol (a) is not engineered to be addictive, and (b) does not have the adverse health effects when taken in moderation. The main quality that tobacco has that alcohol does not have is the quality of addicting children to something that will adversely affect most of their lives.

I agree that we need more research on what inclines a child to start smoking. I believe that the most common determinator is whether their friends smoke. Infect one child with a desire to smoke, and that child will infect others in his or her peer group. However, policy should be based on what the science discovers, not on my guesses.

I was one of those children of parents who smoke, who does not smoke myself. However, my parents (and my father in particular) protested that getting addicted to cigarettes is a bad thing and the best way to avoid smoking is to never start.

Josh said...

A very timely post. I'm going through the process of quiting smoking, and this gives me a little more edge to fight against those cravings.

As long as I don't bite someone's head off first. Withdrawal is a bitch.

I'm wondering what your take is on depression / suicide. Perhaps a future post?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Let me know if my earlier posting on Suicide, Physician Assisted Suicide, and (in my other blog), The Selfishness Argument against Suicide do not address your questions.

Anonymous said...

I love the post. :)

I am a smoker myself. I'd always been aware of the health effects, and of the role-model problems. I have two younger brothers (now teenagers, but I started smoking years ago), and I tell them frequently that it's a horrible habit and they should avoid it like the plauge. Hopefully my words (and those of our parents, and society) have had more impact than my actions. I also always make sure to never smoke where there's a chance the 2nd-hand smoke will reach a child. This is much easier for me than many older people, as I can't remember (or for that matter, even imagine) a time where it was ever permissible to smoke indoors (with occasional exceptions when put in sequestered areas).

Before I go on, I would like to acknowledge that this sounds very much like a rationalization, and it probably is. I can hear the additiction speaking even as I type this.

However I want to take some exception to the statement that I am supporting an industry that makes a profit by slowly killing people, and thus am implicit in that act. Yes, the industry does this. And yes, buy purchasing tobacco I am supporting their continued existance. However I feel this commits the error of blaming an individual for actions he did not commit by association with a group. Similar to blaming all religious people for the 9/11 attacks.

I have nothing to do with the deaths of other people. I am contributing directly to my own death, and I am aware of this. I'm paying money I earned for a product I want. Every other smoker is doing the same thing. I must object to being blamed for contributing to the deaths of people I've never seen, never had any interaction with, and will never be able to affect in the slightest way. Can the employee for a company that produces agricultural fertilzer also be blamed for smoker deaths in this way?

That being said, I do support all the laws prohibitting smoking in public places, and am a proponent of the social campaign to end smoking. Which, I know, is somewhat inconsistant with my actions. But hey, I'm gonna die of something eventually anyway. :/

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You're analogy to 9/11 is somewhat flawed.

It is not like blaming all religious people for 9/11.

It is like blaming all the people who purchased something from an Al-Queida bake sale, under a banner that says "Anti-American Attack Fund" for 9/11.

You know what the money will be used for.

The employee of the company that makes agriculture fertilizer cannot be blamed for smoker deaths any more than she can be blamed for the Oklahoma City terrorist attack. But the agriculture supply store employee who sells the fertilizer to a customer who says "I'm going to use this for a bomb to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City," and who is known to be telling the truth, can be blamed.

You're purchasing goods at a fundraiser for the 'get people addicted to cigarettes club'. It may well be a product that you want to buy. But is it an organization you want to support?

Anonymous said...

I object to the smoked form of *any* drug more than other forms, since the smoker is inflicting that drug on anyone nearby.

I would support having a government monopoly on drugs for which there is substantial evidence of addictiveness. Keep the price high but no so high as to create a black market. Make the smoked form of any drug at least twice as expensive as other forms.

Anonymous said...

There's another moral dimension here, that may apply more in Canada and other countries with universal health care than it does to the United States - on average, a smoker will require more than his or her fair share of health care resources as a result of their smoking as they age. That is to say that non-smokers are put in a position in which they are literally paying for the smoker's poor decisions.

Come to think of it, Americans should feel this too, since their government allegedly spends more per capita on health care than the Canadian government does, despite the lack of universal health care in the US.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your statement is true, and something that I addressed in an earlier post on Unhealthy Lifestyles and Universal Health Care

Anonymous said...

Damn, I hate having to change. :/

So, when WOULD it be acceptable to buy tobacco? Would an addictive substance have to be non-carcinogenic? Would the company have to be one that didn't intentionally create a product that's as addictive as possible?

It seems like the vileness of tobacco comes from the fact that the major companies intentionally create a market of addicts and don't have the slightest bit of concern for the negative effects that tobacco has on it's users. Would, perhaps, a local grower who doesn't engineer his tobacco and warns his buyers of the risks be less objectionable to buy from?

Anonymous said...

Granted, smoking is unhealthy, expensive, and generally pretty disgusting.

But is it morally wrong?

I am not entirely clear on the tenets and logic of your "desire utilitarianism", so perhaps under that philosophy it can be considered morally wrong, however I fail to see the logic based on your article. After wading through the appeals to emotion and guilt by association, I am still not certain how one person's decision to smoke (or not) causes any other person to smoke (or not). Does it not boil down to a person's decision and therefore a personal responsibility? Is any person responsible for the actions of another person (excluding coercion, gross negligence, etc.)?

Also, as to the inherent rightness or wrongness of smoking, excluding for the moment effects on other people, doesn't the estimation of whether or not "future desires" are being thwarted by "current desires", depend entirely on one's own "future desires"? Can we say definitively whether smoking thwarts or enables someone else's particular "future desires." Are we now deciding other people's desires, current or otherwise?

As for supporting "an industry that inflicts agonizing deaths on others for profit," hyperbole aside, aren't those actions the responsibility of those taking the actions. In fact, aren't the actions you speak of, e.g. advertising targeted at minors, illegal in most cases. Not that legality and ethics actually coincide, but they are held legally responsible in those cases.

Although I may seem to be defending smoking and the smoking industry, what I am actually concerned with is the assumption of responsibility for the actions of another. Is a smoker responsible for harm to another when that harm is avoidable by the other person? And not just avoidable, but that other person has to consciously engage in said harm. This is excepting, of course, direct harm by second-hand smoke, which I think smokers are ethically, and in many cases legally, obligated to avoid. As we all are - ethically obligated to avoid causing harm. (Possible exceptions being self-defense, defense of others, war(?), etc.)

The cliche analogy, I think, applies here; Is a person responsible, or ethically culpable, for another person's obesity because the first person "supports" McDonald's by buying a Big Mac? (Likewise, alcohol, junk food, television, pornography, electricity (global warming), etc.) Yes, the addictive nature of tobacco subtracts from already low, or non-existent, desirability of smoking, but isn't that just a matter of degree. Doesn't McDonald's "engineer" their food to taste good regardless of nutritional value, and in some cases directly harmful, e.g. Trans-fats, until forced to do otherwise? Doesn't the oil industry do everything in it's power to make it's products more desirable regardless of the impact on the environment, until forced to do otherwise.

Sorry, for the long winded post, but I would generally like to understand the argument presented. If you are saying something like, 'Yet more reasons not to smoke... ,' I whole-heartedly (and whole-mindedly) agree. However, if you are saying that smoking is inherently unethical, I'm not sure that your case has been made. Although, I am more than willing to be convinced otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Ken -
I'm gonna take a stab at this, because all these were swirling thru my head when I was writing my original comments.

The tobacco industry is unique among legal industries in that it provides absolutely nothing of value. It does not have any side benefit of providing nutrition, or entertainment, or even inebriation. Literally the only thing tobacco does is temporarily reduce a craving to consume tobacco, which was a craving intentionally implanted by the tobacco companies for the sole purpose of selling you tobacco. Furthermore it is by no means harmless (insert long list of harmful effects of smoking, we all know them by now). Yet the tobacco companies just don't care how much misery (and death) they cause by implanting a craving for tobacco in people, as long as they can keep selling you tobacco. Thus they are an abjectly immoral industry.

And by buying tobacco you know full well that you are funding this effort of that industry to do more harm for profit. Which in a sense makes you somewhat morally complicit.

Anonymous said...

eneasz -

Again, I'm not trying to defend the tobacco industry, however I'm still not sure the logic follows.

Regardless of the value that you assign to it, apparently other people value it. I might say that reality television has no value, but many people would disagree.

As for "intentionally implanted" craving, the tobacco industry has definitely tried to enhanced the addictive aspect of tobacco, but nicotine is a natural chemical in tobacco. Similarly, "implanting a craving for tobacco in people" is misleading. As far as I know, no one is forced to smoke. Tobacco was cultivated and consumed before the tobacco industry was around.

I absolutely agree that the tobacco industry has been extremely deceptive, in fact criminally fraudulent, in what they produce and how they sell it. However, if there is no deception, and they are providing a product that people are knowingly willing to buy, even if it is harmful, is there anything inherently unethical. The value judgments, I think, are completely subjective.

Honestly, I think I am wrong, but I'm not seeing the logic. Is the fact that it is "engineered" to be more addictive and that it is harmful even relevant to the logic if both parties are willing participants?

Are we ethically obligated to do no harm... to ourselves? And are we ethically obligated to not produce anything that can be used to harm oneself? ...Or that can only be used to harm oneself?!?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The 'value' that people find in smoking is the release from the craving that the tobacco gives. them.

Most people get their addiction to tobacco when they are children - when they are susceptible to suggestion.

We think that the adult that takes the 15 year old girl to bed with him is despicable.

No less dispicable than the tobaccoo company executive getting a kid hooked on tobacco.

Anonymous said...

I agree that selling/addicting children is absolutely unethical. although, I am unsure whether 'most' start as children, you may be correct, However, my questions related to consenting adults. Also, once again shouldn't the value be determined by the parties involved irrespective of what we may think the value ought to be?

Regardless, I think I am splitting hairs on a dead horse headed in the wrong direction. So, thank you for the discussion. It has definitely made me think.