Truth Through Combat

Caleb Howe’s McEscalation

One of the snazziest anti-nanny-state articles in a while. Perhaps the clearest and most direct argument that can be found in this highly stylized piece is found about midway:

Also instructive is the assertion that McD’s is undermining parental authority. Note the subtle abdication of that very authority, and all personal responsibility, just by that remark. Kids are fat because toys lure them, and parents are powerless. Since you, you weak fat Americans, are too weak and fat to decide what to feed your kids, we will do it for you. Since you can’t say no on a case by case basis, we’ll just take away the option.

Howe’s argument relates to a proposed San Francisco law that would restrict the sale of toys with Happy Meals. The objective is to remove the “lure” of toys so as to not provide an enticing target for children. Howe’s reply questions the idea that the solution to such enticements is to remove the option and take away the need for parents to make these sorts of decisions.

This raises the following questions:

  • To what extent should government see itself as a parental aid?
  • Is this kind of government intervention in personal dietary decisions capable of being successful? Can/will such interventions succeed in making people healthier?
  • Even if it does succeed, is such an intervention warranted? What does society or humanity lose when government takes over this kind of decision-making, if anything?

Here’s the piece: http://www.redstate.com/absentee/2010/08/19/war-on-food-mcescalating.

Filed under: Bioethics, Politics

In Favor of Smoking

An Argument in Favor of Smoking
It is commonplace these days to find arguments in favor of smoking cessation. These arguments are typically based on the proposition that smoking tends to shorten life. Such arguments are making an unjustified assumption, however. Once questioned, the assumption in fact falls apart and cannot be sustained. This brings the entire argument in favor of smoking cessation down, and in fact has fatal consequences for arguments in favor of restrictions on smoking.

I will first expose the assumption. I will then show it to be unjustified. I will conclude by offering reasons to smoke, concluding that smoking is sometimes justified.

The Assumption
A popular advertisement against smoking runs frequently on public television. It graphically depicts one of the effects of smoking: the buildup of fatty deposits in the aorta of a long-time smoker. The ad can be viewed here: www.theindychannel.com/video/17982192/index.html .

The ad is meant to shock, of course. By doing so, it hopes to lead people to the position that they should stop smoking (or not start smoking). The unstated points are rather clear: by assisting in the buildup of such deposits, smoking decreases the ability of the heart to pump blood and deliver oxygen to tissues. This in turn will cause damage to those tissues and may shorten life. The message: if you want to live longer, don’t smoke.

The assumption is significant and never stated, however. It is contained in the “if” of that proposition: If you want to live longer. What if someone does not in fact want to live longer? What if living longer is not a good idea, in fact? What reasons can be given for a longer life?

The answers are actually shocking. It is almost universally assumed that more life is a good thing. This is the unspoken assumption of smoking cessation campaigns. This is the essence of the anti-smoking argument, in fact. Is the assumption justifiable?

No. The assumption cannot be justified.
To assume that life is always desirable is a common fallacy which drives much foolish behavior and policy-making. To see why this is the case, consider the following facts:

  • A British study found that the average lifespan of a smoker is ten years lower than the average lifespan of a non-smoker. The smokers had a 58% chance of being alive at 70, while non-smokers had a 81% chance of being alive at the same age. At age 80, those numbers dropped to 26% and 59%, respectively.
  • If the British study is accurate, this would mean that smokers have an average lifespan of approximately 70 years in the United States. Nonsmokers are at about 80 years.
  • At age 50, a U.S. male has a 6.1% chance of developing lung cancer within 30 years. The same rate for women is about 4.7%. Among smokers, these rates rise to about 12.5%.
  • 1 in 5 cases of lung cancer among men are in non-smokers. 1 in 4 cases of lung cancer among women are in non-smokers.
  • 1 in 3 men will develop cancer of some sort. 1 in 2 women will develop cancer.
  • Only about 1 in 4 male smokers will develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Those who do are likely to have a genetic determinant (ADAM33).

I draw the following conclusions from these data: that what we are really talking about when we decide whether to smoke is whether the potential decrease in quality and quantity of life is worth the benefits that one derives from smoking. This has to be considered in light of the fact that those ten years between 70 and 80 are the worst years in terms of health. Furthermore, if cancer is killing a lot of us anyhow, then why would it matter whether we died of lung cancer or some other cancer?

The final question is then the following: are those ten years worth the cost of giving up (or not taking up) smoking?

Reasons to Smoke
To answer this question one must know what the benefits of smoking are:

  • Weight loss: it is common to use cigarettes to assist in weight loss. Given that it takes up the function of eating (it’s hard to eat and smoke at exactly the same time) and that it provides a short-lived euphoria, and that it speeds up metabolism and causes the body to burn more calories, it is understandable that it would be helpful in losing weight. However, the evidence is mixed: http://priory.com/med/cigsmoking.htm and http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,304259,00.html.
  • Lowered Risk of Ulcerative Colitis: this is well-documented — http://ibdcrohns.about.com/cs/ibdfaqs/a/smokingguts.htm.
  • Possible Lower Risk of Parkinson’s: this is not as well-documented as the colitis findings — http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070709171619.htm.
  • Fun and Camaraderie: Smoking is often fun. The rush of nicotine to the brain (within 7 seconds) provides instant happiness, relaxation, and a social instrument through which to meet people.
  • The Exercise of Freedom as an Expression of One’s Independence: This benefit is a bit more subtle, and perhaps therefore more disputable. It does seem, however, that the smoker tends to be a more “free” individual. Perhaps because the smoker has been largely turned into a pariah, it is easier to see this side of him: he smokes, therefore must be independent of social norms and free of the typical social conventions. Meeting a fellow smoker is sometimes a union with like-minded people: cynical, irreverent, somewhat disrespectful of social hierarchies, and unhappy in a genuine and refreshing way.

So, I promised an argument in favor of smoking. Here is my summation: a person should smoke under the following conditions:

  1. Enjoyment and/or weight loss. If one of these two reasons is not present, then there’s no point to the whole thing. After all, there must be a benefit to doing what we do.
  2. A general lack of interest in living an extra relatively unhealthy decade of lowered productivity.

Why these reasons? First of all, avoiding Parkinson’s or ulcerative colitis would be bad reasons to smoke unless one was already at risk and preferred some of the other health effects of smoking to those two. Secondly, there just aren’t any other good reasons (with the possible exception of suicide — but it’s an awfully-inefficient way to kill oneself).

Are these reasons defensible? Yes. It is perfectly rational to trade an enjoyable life for a shorter life. We do it all the time when we stay up late to hang out with friends, when we fail to exercise to the utmost capacity of our bodies, when we eat a burger instead of wheat germ, or whenever we are not in fact working to increase our lifespan.

I am sure it is possible to purposely build a life that would last 120 or 130 years if given fortunate genetics. But such a life would probably be filled with taking care of the body. It would probably not be a lot of fun. Not a lot of time to spend with the kids when you are running six miles a day. No late nights. No fun foods.

Now, you will say: “But it doesn’t have to be all that bad. One can have a little bit of fun and still live a healthy lifestyle.” Exactly, and in doing so you will probably buy yourself an extra five years. So, you might live 82 or 85 years instead of 70 or so in the case of the smoker. But why is that better? Why is more life better? If there’s no afterlife, then we simply stop existing and expire. We will not be around to regret having smoked and not having lived to 85. If there is an afterlife and a judgment, can one seriously argue that the almighty will send one to hell for having smoked? And, if one goes to heaven, there can be no regrets. After all, it wouldn’t be heaven if it was filled with regret over a “wasted” life.

To conclude: because smoking can be a rational choice, we should immediately end the shock-ads, allow tobacco advertising to be regulated the same way any other ads are regulated, and not try to discourage people from smoking. I recommend retaining the age of 18 as the legal smoking age, but I believe my argument has conclusively shown that there are no good reasons to demonize tobacco use or to try to discourage its use among adults. Given that children are generally irrational, the age of 18 is a useful public policy tool. Otherwise, however, there is little point to the way American society approaches the use of this product.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Anne Applebaum’s “America’s Peculiar Amnesia”

Ms. Applebaum writes in Slate that people have forgotten what a profligate spender President Bush was. This is true, if by “people” she means “some people.” This is false, if by “people” she means “all people.”

Applebaum is playing a common game among political commentators:

  1. Note how a group is levying Charge X.
  2. Note how the same group failed to levy Charge X against those who committed the same sin, but was one of theirs. This exposes the group’s hypocrisy.
  3. Conclude by questioning the credibility of the group.


  1. The argumentative stratagem commits a fallacy of generalization in steps 1, 2, and 3. It is always best to avoid large-scale generalizations of “left” and “right” in political commentary.
  2. It is vague in each or all of these steps as well (“people” could refer to two people or 300 million).
  3. It uses an ad hominem fallacy of relevance to divert attention from the issue at hand (who cares, after all, if in fact an entire group is hypocritical — this does not make their present argument wrong).

Ms. Applebaum’s argument is filled with “we” and “they” language. This in itself signals that this argument consists for her of nothing more sophisticated than group-centered analysis. But it should be obvious — and it is obvious to so many people — that sophisticated political analysis can see differences within groups, that not all members of a party think alike, that there is no “left” or “right” in politics, and that until we take individuals as individuals we will be stuck in the same lame kind of literary collectivism that plagues political commentary today. The aforementioned fallacies are just the tip of the iceberg in this regard.

Move away from the stereotypes, Ms. Applebaum. Your writing — and your readers — will be better for it.

Filed under: Politics, , ,