Fragments: Smoking is for ethicists

By Andy Pragacz

February is the month to reconsider our New Year’s resolutions. Usually this means toning down their absolutist sentiment or abrogate their import altogether. Most resolutions, however, are moral insofar as they encourage you to ‘better’ yourself in some way, which is always measured in reference to the dominant order. Here I suggest that we should not try to better ourselves, in moralistic terms, but rather to be more ethical. The quest to be more ethical is not accompanied by a need ‘to make better’ but it does necessitate personal change; moral discourse has an ideal referent, it is teleological (e.g. I want to lose weight), whereas ethical discourse functions without concrete direction but idealizes possibility (the anti-thesis of teleology). To aid in this new journey of yours I offer you a way to be more ethical: start smoking! More appropriately and closer to my actual sentiment I encourage you to be more ethical by re-considering (both smokers and non-smokers alike) the act of smoking itself. Smoking is or at least can be in accordance with ethical conduct. It can only be ethical, however, in specific contexts and either with a political meaning and/or if it forces others to alter/re-configure the dominant order, with the latter being of greater import.

A step back: what does it mean to be ethical? For Alain Badiou an ethical act is either the doing of something “that the usual way[s] of behaving cannot account for”-to cause an ‘event’-or to dedicate oneself to the event. Badiou believes that what distinguishes humans from animals is our capacity to be ethical, or to expose ourselves to death. (Darwinian) animal existence only involves preservation of life: animals live in a vein attempt not to die. Humans, however, do not need to act in our own self-interest (or the interest of any other living thing for that matter), opening the door for ethical action and life. (Just by the way there are events happening at every moment of the day and night, it is just a matter of recognizing this fact).

Certainly, smoking is an example of ethical action in the most rudimentary sense insofar as smoking causes death. Smoking, however, would not conform to Badiouian ethics as a thing-in-itself; smoking is not universally ethical. Knowing that smoking causes death forces the question: why do people smoke (given that smokers are not inherently more ethical than anyone else)? Normal response would ‘rationalize’ the act in some way, e.g. by faulting nicotine’s addictiveness, the ignorance of the smoker, or the smoker’s desire to ‘fit in.’ All of these notions, however, are part of the same discourse which tells us smoking is deadly. The assertion that smoking is deadly, forming the initial question, is a moralistic proposition and the ‘normal responses’ are designed to (morally) denigrate the act of smoking (e.g. if someone is addicted to nicotine then they must be controlled by their passions).

One more step back: what is a moral act? What is an amoral act? In our everyday life, being moral (following the Golden Rule) is norm and it behooves us to be moral: being moral comes with benefits. For example, I stand in line rather than jump to the front because I don’t want other people to budge so that I can get into Café Mac. If the moral is the ‘normal’ and the ethical is the ‘unexpected’ then a moral act (or an act that comes to have moral significance) cannot be ethical. Kant seemed to realize this when he attempted to equate the Golden Rule with self-less action (a tenet of ethics), and then concluded that it was impossible to distinguish between selfish and self-less action in the phenomenological world.

In the context of the US with its massive bio-political industrial complex bent on alienating us from ourselves, commanding the power of right and wrong, smoking can be ethical. The question we should be asking is not why the smoker smokes, but why smoking is the site of moral discourse in the first place? It is the same general reason why women were/are confined to the ‘sphere of domesticity’ and men die because of stress-induced heart attacks at 45: POWER. The dominant order, those with power (persons and institutions beholden to the dominant order), have/has an interest in regulating and making docile the ‘masses’ (us) in order to maintain its/their privileged positions. The discourse around smoking is not so much about making people quit, but a way for power-holders to assert, in a way Thrasymachus would approve, their tyranny to define right and wrong. This is evidenced by the development of not smoking as a political sign and demonstration of moral superiority of the largely white, non-smoking middle and upper classes.

Everyone knows that smoking is bad and yet people continue to do it. Why, then, do we continue to spew moralistic notions and medical insights at smokers? Do we think this will make them stop? If they do stop because they believe it is bad for them, accepting the non-smoking ideology, then has the smoker gained a new lease on life or has the dominant order won by gripping the life of one more body to be further manipulated? At some level, I believe, smoker’s smoke in a sophomoric attempt to thumb their nose at those trying to tell them what to do. At one moment in history pointing out the health risks of smoking was an ethical act insofar as the discourse was marginal. Now, however, the antagonism between smokers and non-smokers is a cause of smoking. If we are serious about getting people to quit then we need to (a) remove the moral language around smoking which would require (b) breaking down (at least partially) the dominant moral order and (hopefully) establishing a system (or anti-system) that is fecund with possibility. If smoking incites some to take up the mantel of possibility, then smoking is ethical and will remain so until the bio-political order crumbles.

Andy Pragacz can be reached at [email protected]