background analysis, posted by Carl V Phillips
A couple of recent posts here have identified as a lie an author’s statement about what should be done. This might seem a bit odd. After all, it would seem that someone’s opinion about what ought to be done in the world cannot be wrong. That is indeed true, so long as they make clear that they are basing their normative statement on their own opinion per se. (Normative = philosophy or economics jargon for a “should” claim.) A statement like, “I would prefer a world in which smokers do not have low-risk options, and therefore X should be done to interfere with adoption of THR,” cannot be a lie.
But when a normative statement is made based on some stated goal other than the whim of the author, then it can be false. And if the author knows the claim is false — or claims to be sufficiently expert that he should know — then it is a lie.
If someone claims that an anti-THR action (product bans, message to smokers, etc.) is justified by public health concerns, they are lying. (Alternatively, they are utterly clueless and are just some other liar’s useful idiots — but I will set them aside for this analysis and just focus on those who claim expertise.) It is theoretically possible to concoct a scenario in which promoting THR could be bad for public health, and if someone actually does that, then they are not lying about the “should” (though they might be lying when they describe the scenario). But lacking such a tortured scenario as part of the analysis, THR is so clearly pro-public-health that the “should” is a lie.
Similarly, if someone states “e-cigarettes contain chemical X and therefore should be avoided” or “…should be prohibited from public use”, it is a lie if the quantity of chemical X creates no known risk, or a risk down in the range of the thousands of exposures that are normally accepted.
Of course, most of the time someone makes a normative statement, they offer no explicit explanation for the normative standards (ethical rules) that they are using. Typically, however, this can be inferred from context. If the discussion surrounding the normative statement is about public health, we can infer that the normative claim is about what would be best for public health. If it is about individual users’ health, that is the implied basis for judging what is best and thus the “should”.
Someone is free to explicitly state their normative standard is something other than what the reader would naturally infer. But if that is what they are doing, they are obliged to be specific and argue that their normative claim is supported in spite of the lack of a normal public health argument. In general, if someone is arguing based on a motive or ethic that is hidden, they need to make that explicit.
If that last sentence sounds familiar, it should. It is really just another way of bringing up the issue of conflict of interest that was the subject of last week’s background post. So, for example, when the American Lung Association advocates against THR (see previous post), they are lying to most readers, who reasonably assume they are taking a position that would tend to improve lung health, when in reality their position is bad for lung health. It turns out that buried in their mission statement is an incongruous anti-t0bacco extremist (and thus anti-THR) position. But unless they make clear they are acting based on that extremist mission, rather than a goal of promoting public health (let alone lung health) then they are lying. Moreover, they should make clear that they are acting based on a clear conflict of interest: anti-tobacco extremism conflicts with the missions of lung health and public health in general.
An honest author is obliged to make clear their motive and its downsides and COIs. The ALA cannot be honest unless they explicitly say “we oppose low-risk alternatives to smoking in spite of the fact that promoting such alternatives is good for lung health.” Obviously they cannot fit this into everything they write on the subject, but because they do not make that clear in any of their writings — but instead pretend that being anti-THR is part of their lung health mission — then everything they write on the subject is a lie.
Compare: No one who honestly writes about THR fails to acknowledge that even low-risk nicotine products probably pose some small risk of premature mortality compared to complete abstinence. Sophisticated writers on the subject further acknowledge that more people will (quite rationally) use tobacco/nicotine when low-risk products are an option, rather than just cigarettes. We then argue that THR is good for public health (among other things) in spite of those facts.
In addition, when someone presents a basis for making a normative claim that is likely to be controversial, they are obliged to make that clear rather than trying to hide it. Consider the example from the previous post, where Standon Glantz called for vaping to be banned wherever smoking is banned. He was clearly misrepresenting the science of the study he cited, and that was an indefensible lie. But setting that aside, he also hinted at an ethic that could make his normative claim defensible: “No one should have to breathe these chemicals, whether they come out of a conventional or e-cigarette.” Not “no one should have to breath these chemicals when produced by someone else”, but specifically if they come out of one of those products (which, I noted, are what he really cares about: products, not people).
So, he could have written: “There is no reason to believe that environmental e-cigarette vapor causes any health problems. But I believe that unlike a thousand other minor sources of air pollution that people inflict upon each other, which should not be banned when they are trivial and have no apparent health effect, any bit of air pollution from an e-cigarette should not be allowed.” That would have been honest. But it then would have been his obligation to convince people that this position is acceptable to take in a free society where most people do not share his personal pique.
Moreover, he would also be obliged to explain why this value of accomplishing this one goal — eliminating any bit of emission from this one particular source — outweighs the costs. In particular, why is the supposed value of this goal sufficient to outweigh the public health costs of encouraging smokers to continue smoking. In addition, he would need to argue that his personal goal justifies depriving people of private property rights and a host of other considerations.
Indeed, that last point brings up a further important consideration: Not only is “getting rid of products that a few people find objectionable” not an accepted basis for normative judgment, but “improving public health” alone (absent a consideration of the myriad other preferences that people have) is not either. More on that another day (or just read the tens of thousands of words that I and others write on that subject every year). But even starting from the absurd normative position that public health trumps all other human preferences, anti-THR “should” statements are almost always lies.