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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I am concerned by the behaviour of certain minors, mostly young girls, who pass the bottom of my garden on their way to school trailing clouds of cigarette smoke and foul invective. Putting aside the offence element, I wonder about parental responsibility when I see children clearly under twelve years of age puffing away on cigarettes.

A large sign in my local pub informs us that it is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of sixteen. Does it also follow then that a child under sixteen is engaged in a criminal act if it is in possession of cigarettes or seen to be smoking them – or is the child immune to criminal prosecution because of age?

Since our present-day law clearly draws on Mill’s Harm Principle [J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty that “The only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others” – Ed.], which explicitly protects minors, could the State legitimately act in a paternalistic way to not only restrain the child from smoking, but seek to identify the supplier of the tobacco with a view to prosecution?

Given the now-acknowledged dangers associated with tobacco use and passive smoking, might the state still be unable to act in a minor’s interest should she be smoking cigarettes with her parents’ consent? If such be the case, does this not have sinister implications in child pornography cases since Mill deemed minors incapable of giving reasoned consent?

I would be obliged to learn how you would advise a citizen of a democratic state to act without being deemed an interfering busybody.

William Watters

Dear William,

No, no, no, yes, no, yes, and you’re asking me? I’m not really good at short answers, you know; nor am I in the business of dispensing advice (despite the suggestive name of my column); and I certainly don’t know how to act in line with my convictions without being considered a royal pain. I am happy, however, to engage your thoughtful letter in dialogue.

One issue that your comments raise in my mind is whether we are rational beings. It is not only children who behave contrary to their own interests (that is, even when there is no compelling moral reason to do so, such as sacrificing oneself for the welfare of one’s children). We all do it, at all ages. Sometimes this is due simply to lack of knowledge about what is good or bad for us. But at other times, it seems, we do it in full awareness of the consequences. How would this even be possible were we truly rational beings?

As it happens, I know a young man who has just taken up smoking. He is of legal age to do so and is one of the most intelligent persons I have ever met. By ‘intelligent’ I mean adept at logical inference as well as generally knowledgeable. His behavior therefore amazes me. I have asked him how he can justify it. He answered that (1) his smoking is minimal and (2) he only does it to facilitate socializing. Thus, his argument is that (1) his practice is below the threshold of physical harm and (2) it serves a personal and social good.

It occurred to me to ask whether he ever smokes alone. When he said, “Yes, but rarely,” I felt that I knew all I needed to know to conclude that he is already addicted, by which I mean that he has developed a habit that distorts his perception of the facts. For he had first completely discounted the solitary smoking as not even occurring. I do not believe he had been lying to me, you see; I think he was, as it were, lying to himself.

In this way he retained his rationality in the strictly logical sense, for his argument was valid enough, given the truth of the premises. Unfortunately, one of his premises was false, namely, that he smokes only in social situations. At this point he was free to fall back on the other premise, that his smoking – social and solitary combined – is minimal (and to add that even the solitary smoking is a source of pleasure for him). But the dialectical damage had been done, since his credibility under the circumstances had been undermined. So, for example, his self-report of ‘minimal’ smoking had to be taken with a grain of salt.

Ultimately his argument is even invalid, since, however harmless his current rate of smoking may be and however pleasurable the practice and its social effects may be, the conclusion that he is overall better off for doing it certainly does not follow. Thus, he may be setting the stage for an increase in the activity as the circumstances of his life become more stressful with the assumption of adult responsibilities, and thence the resultant detrimental health effects.

Smart fellow that he is, he would no doubt reply that the long-term effects could weigh in favor of his smoking. After all, somebody who primps himself on proper and prudent behavior could end up being a social outcast and suffer all his life for it. What good is mere length of life if it is unhappy?

But I would have stopped listening by this point. For, as committed to dialectic as I am, I do refrain from idle debate. And once it has become clear to me that a person’s motives for arguing are strictly self-interested or, in this case, self-defeating but put forward by the mechanical part of one’s mind to support the desired conclusion, I lose interest. The real damage to this young man from smoking has been to his soul: He has lost autonomous control of his own thinking.

Yours as ever,


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