2 July 2007

No smoking

Smoking is now illegal in the UK in all indoor locations that are open to the public. Controversially, this includes private establishments where the counter-argument exists that a non-smoker could frequent another establishment if they minded enough.

The logic for tolerating the smoking ban seems to proceed as follows.

1) Most people now believe that smoking cigarettes is equivalent to taking a regular dose of poison: it is basically extremely harmful to health, probably more so (addiction aside) than any of the major illegal drugs.

2) Therefore the right to behave how you like, provided it does not harm others, is not important in this case, and hence does not need to be defended.

3) Many smokers are themselves in favour of the ban, because they believe it will help them to give up.

There has therefore been relatively little objection to the ban encroaching on areas where no non-smoker is being harmed. But is it possible that an important principle is being lost sight of? J.S. Mill argued that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

Once a major piece of legislation breaks clearly with this moral restriction, and without significant opposition, are we likely to find other areas in which it will be applied? “Slippery slope” arguments of this kind are regarded as dubious by many philosophers. Bernard Williams, for example, considered them illogical because they appear to assume “that there is no point at which one can non-arbitrarily get off the slope once one has got onto it”.

Nevertheless, there does seem to be something in the idea of slippery slopes, in politics at least. The argument “we allow A, therefore it is inconsistent not to allow B", or “we already ban X, so why do we allow Y?”, is frequently used. Even if not sound, it is a line of argument which the general public seems prepared to regard as reasonable. On that basis, it may not be long before other legislation is proposed to prevent unhealthy individual behaviour. It has already been suggested that it should be a crime for a parent to allow their child to overeat. On that basis it is not impossible that it will, in the not too distant future, become illegal to sell or consume certain foods, e.g. snacks with more than a permitted maximum level of sugar or fat.

Other articles
David Hockney against the smoking ban
Daily Referendum on the smoking ban
Reuters on the smoking ban
Pub tries to avoid ban by becoming an embassy
Stumbling & Mumbling on the smoking ban
Nourishing Obscurity on the smoking ban
Julian Baggini on slippery slopes
Fallacy Files on slippery slopes


james higham said...

Missed one, Heraklites, sir:


Heraklites said...

Thank you, added.

james higham said...

Thank you in turn. The ban is the thin edge of the wedge, you'd possibly agree.

Heraklites said...

Do you think the fact that this legislation succeeded in getting through has made it more likely that there will be other encroachments on private behaviour? What do you make of Julian Baggini's criticisms of the "slippery slope" argument?