Banning Cigarettes, Paternalism, Liberty and Harm: Clearing the Smoke

Media headlines in the UK are widely reporting Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a proposal to ban smoking for younger generations. Under the proposal, the legal age of smoking would increase by one year every year so that, eventually, no-one would be able to buy tobacco.

The proposal has proved to be controversial, and it has prompted a number of different arguments. This is unsurprising; the proposal represents a classic conflict between individual well-being, liberty, and third-party interests. As the BBC reports, some commentators have also highlighted an apparent inconsistency in Sunak’s own position, since he recently pushed back part of the government’s anti-obesity strategy, because of “people’s right to choose”. Again, the BBC reports that Sunak’s own response to this consistency argument has been that there is an important difference between the two policy positions, because ‘there is no healthy level of smoking’, whilst one can enjoy unhealthy foods as part of a healthy diet.

However, the claim that there is ‘no healthy level of smoking’ can be used to respond to this consistency argument and support the proposed smoking ban in quite different ways. Whether we support or oppose the proposal, it is crucial to be clear about the precise moral arguments that both supporters and opponents are making.

One useful way to begin is by thinking about whether or not the proposed ban is paternalistic.

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Video Interview: Julian Savulescu on the Selective Restriction of Liberty During the Pandemic

Many people accept that, to protect public health, it is sometimes acceptable, or morally obligatory, to restrict people’s liberties. But there’s a lot of disagreement about how far these restrictions should go, and whom they should apply to: everyone, or certain groups of people only? In this Thinking out Loud interview, Professor Julian Savulescu (Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford) defends the view that we should only restrict the liberties of those vulnerable to COVID-19. (Interview and editing by Katrien Devolder, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.)

Gambling on Liberty

Fixed Odd Betting Terminals (FOBTs) allow punters to bet up to £100 a time in casino games such as roulette. Bookmakers are allowed four terminals in each shop, and there are now around 35,000 of them in the UK. In the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) gambling disorder is described in the chapter on substance-disorder and related disorders. It was recently reported that industry-funded research showed that levels of ‘problem gambling’ among those using these machines ran at around 23%. Continue reading

The Naked Truth?

Stephen Gough, over a series of sentences, has served nearly six years in custody in the UK for refusing to wear clothes in public. He shows no sign of changing his view on the importance of nudity, and it is conceivable that he will spend the rest of life behind bars. Why does he do it? It’s not entirely clear but his position appears to be grounded on the value of living an autonomous life: ‘We can either end up living a life that others expect of us or lives based on our own truth. The difference is the difference between living a conscious life or one that is unconscious. And that’s the difference between living and not living.’

On the face of it, Gough’s decision sounds like a paradigmatic example of the kind of ‘experiment of living’ that John Stuart Mill thought no one should be prevented from attempting except in so far as they harm others: ‘the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them’. But in fact Mill himself would probably have advocated Gough’s imprisonment on grounds of indecency: ‘[T]here are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightly be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency.’

The tension here arises within Mill’s utilitarianism itself. On the one hand, he recognizes the importance to human happiness of our following our own paths in life. On the other, he sees that our so doing can often seriously upset or threaten others, sometimes to the point where the best outcome may involve the restriction of individual freedom.

 But, if that were Mill’s view on the Gough case, would his siding with convention here be a mere product of Victorian stuffiness? Yes, people may get upset, perhaps even quite frightened, by seeing a man wandering around without clothes. But perhaps it would be more valuable, in the longer term, for us to allow experiments of living that upset others: we may discover more valuable ways of life, and even if we don’t our failures will provide a contrast against which truly happiness-promoting modes of existence can stand out. What, really, is the utilitarian value in having taboos concerning public nudity?

 I can see the force of this liberal, pro-Gough argument. It is not difficult to imagine a world in which nakedness is universally accepted, and it may well be that such a world would be happier without our hang-ups about clothes. But a central issue here is feasibility. Even if Gough’s experiment catches on, the upshot is likely to be a large increase in genuine offence and alarm, as well as an increase in sexually motivated exhibitionism universal acceptance of  which is even less likely in the longer term. In a sense, Gough is harmless: there is a possible world in which what he does harms no one. But in this world he does cause harm. And of course the chances of Gough’s changing attitudes and then the law are minuscule, especially in a country such as the UK, where the cool atmospheric climate is matched with a prudish intellectual one. My advice to Gough on release would be either to live in a naturist colony, or to find some less alarming way of expressing himself among the rest of us.


Legalize heroin

By Brian Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.


Forget about “medical marijuana.” Isn’t it time to legalize heroin in the United States? Recreational cocaine? Ecstasy? LSD? How about the whole nefarious basketful of so-called ‘harder’ drugs?

Yes, it is, says Ron Paul, a fourteen-term libertarian congressman and obstetrician from the state of Texas. It’s a view shared by virtually none of his Republican colleagues, nor, for that matter, very many Democrats. Nor really anyone in the “mainstream” of American politics. But in this post, I’ll argue that he’s right.

Paul—who is currently making his third bid for President of the United States—offered his perspective to comedian and Daily Show host Jon Stewart in an interview earlier this week:

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