Sunday, 20 November 2011

Peter Singer & the False Consciousness of Smokers

A blogpost is probably an inadequate forum for arguing for something as radical as the prohibition of cigarettes, but I’m not sure if a lack of space is sufficient excuse for the weakness of Peter Singer’s argument on Project Syndicate. It’s made even more peculiar by the fact that this week Singer also signed a letter for calling for the liberalisation of drug law, or at least of their enforcement.

There seem to me to be two obvious objections to the idea of outlawing tobacco. The first is the practical one – banning such a popular activity is counterproductive. The second is the principled one – such paternalism is illegitimate. Interestingly, Singer gives essentially the same response to both objections: most smokers don’t really want to smoke – they’ve just made a mistake somewhere along the way.

This is pretty implausible as a claim about the efficacy of banning cigarettes. Even if “many smokers would actually like to see cigarettes banned because, like Obama, they want to quit”, the remaining stubborn few are likely to constitute a problem as great as the current narcotics trade. If Singer can see that the war on drugs isn’t working, why does he want to add another front to it?

Singer’s strategy in response to the paternalism objection is more intriguing. His response to those who question the state’s legitimacy to carry out such proscriptions is unpersuasive – “For those who recognize the state’s right to ban recreational drugs like marijuana and ecstasy, a ban on cigarettes should be easy to accept”. But many of those who question the state’s right to ban cigarettes will be equally sceptical of its right to ban other recreational drugs. Nevertheless, most people do accept paternalism in one form or another, the classic case being the enforcement of seatbelt wearing.

I think the reason that some forms of paternalism are seen as relatively uncontroversial is because most accept that they are genuinely in people’s interests. I think very few people would think it is plausible that the discomfort of wearing a seatbelt is worse than the risk of death and injury it protects us from. With smoking, it is not so clear. People do claim to derive such pleasure from smoking that they would be willing to sacrifice a few extra years of health to keep the habit.

Singer appears to be denying either that people do think in such a way, or that if they did, it would be a rational way to look at things. Like all claims of false consciousness, it’s difficult to prove. Singer’s problem is that it seems like he’s denying that smoking can be enjoyable at all. He presents smokers as if they’re all addicts or dupes of peer pressure and advertising, which is clearly only part of the story.

Yet it could well be that the pleasure people enjoy from smoking is almost never enough to outweigh the harm that it causes them, and that almost everybody who smokes is therefore irrational. Of course, this brings us into the philosophically thorny area of what constitutes rationality. However, the simplest (and least contentious) way to show irrationality is to demonstrate that people who take up smoking will come to regret it. This is what Singer seems to do when he suggests “most smokers take up the habit as teenagers and later want to quit”. In the context of Singer’s argument this looks a bit ad hoc, but perhaps he is aware of the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, which found that nearly 70% of American smokers want to quit, and over half had attempted to do so in the past year.

This is quite a striking finding, and I wonder what proportion of those wish that they had never started smoking. If there is an activity that over half of people regret undertaking with hindsight, is that enough to make the probabilistic claim that it is irrational to pursue it? It certainly doesn’t address the practical issues, but if Singer can convince people that it is almost always irrational to take up smoking, he will be a lot closer to his goal of banning smoking.