Political philosophy is not a matter of personal opinion

posted by Carl V Phillips (with help from Julie Woessner)

I was not going to follow up on yesterday’s post about how normative statements can be lies, but Elaine Keller called my attention to this comment on the lies by Glantz that helped anchor that analysis.  It brought up a particular additional point on the subject that is worth making.

We see a lot of false statements about natural science because people do not understand the material.  [Note: natural science is basically the study of anything that would exist even if human society did not, and social science is the rest.]  But we see false statements about social science because of that but also, somewhat ironically, because people think they understand it better than they do because it does not use so many words they have never heard.  Moreover, discourse on both social science and political philosophy further suffers from sounding similar to topics where everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion (personal preferences and morality), which causes some people to make the mistake of thinking that their opinions are worth something even when the statement cannot be based on personal opinion.  Today’s example is a good illustration.

As I pointed out yesterday, Glantz wandered close to the neighborhood of avoiding his lie about what should be done (based on some accepted norm), replacing the lie with a true statement that he just has an extreme idiosyncratic view and his normative claim is based on that.  He did not get anywhere near close enough, but there was actually a hint there that he understood that he was basing his claim on a particular extremist viewpoint and not on anyone else’s measure of what constitutes the good.

Not so the anonymous commenter who, by comparison, managed to make Glantz’s grasp on reality look quite good.

We have every right to ban the unregulated use of any delivery method for a toxic recreational drug that has any potential to harm others whatsoever.

Yes, some idiot[*] really wrote that.  “We have every right to ban”.

[*Note: If you think I am being too hard on this guy, you can read the rest of the comment and see that I am not; I am just focused on one of several very stupid statements.  In fairness, this commentator, unlike Glantz, is not claiming to be an expert of any sort.  Still, anyone with grade-school level civics behind them should not have made the error in question.]

I will leave more in-depth analysis of such idiocy to those who write about liberty in the context of substance use.  (If you are interested in that topic but not sure who to read, start with Snowdon and branch out from there).  Suffice to say that a core part of post-Enlightenment Western political philosophy is about the rights of the individual to be free from tyranny and the very limited ways in which society should intervene in spite of those rights.  Notice that the word “rights” only shows up on one side of this equation, and it is not the nannying side championed by that writer.

Moreover, we can look at the specifics of the issue at hand.  Recall the context:  Glantz asserts that e-cigarettes should be banned anywhere that smoking is banned.  But there is no question that smoking bans are an extreme exception in the context of rights.  Smoking is one of the very few things that is not banned outright (like, say, punching someone in the face) but that private businesses (in many jurisdictions) cannot freely allow on their premises if they so choose, even if they make sure that everyone present is aware of that fact and even if all are required to explicitly declare they accept the situation before entering.  Indeed, most things that are banned outright are allowed under carefully constructed private agreements (you can enter into a contract to allow someone to punch you in the face, or hire someone whose job description includes allowing that to happen).  It is difficult to think of another example — outside of the rest of the Drug War and bans on sex work — where core freedoms are so thoroughly abrogated as with smoking bans.

But, of course, the likes of Glantz have been telling us for years that there is something unique about smoking.  There is a bit of merit to this.  For the many people who object to the smell of cigarette smoke, smoking is among the worst aesthetic insults someone nearby is likely to inflict, up there with talking loudly on the phone, blasting music, never bathing, or making racist/homophobic/anti-Islamic/etc. comments.  Private employers, hosts, etc. very often disallow all of these in the venues they control — as is their right as private actors — but are also free to allow them.  Indeed, some entities would have a hard time prohibiting the last on the list if they wanted to.  So smoking bans already defy normal notions of rights.

Then there is the health argument.  But there, the claims go, smoking is absolutely unique.  If you believe the common claims, it is several orders of magnitude worse than the next-worst thing that people inflict on their neighbors.  And even setting aside the exaggerations, it is still plausible to claim that it is an order of magnitude or two worse than any other common neighbor’s-health-affecting activity other than driving.

But even with all of that, the ethical case for taking away the rights of individual actors to decide whether to allow the exposure is very dicey.  It is quite controversial among the populace and even more so among people who seriously study such matters as rights.  Thus, it is obviously absurd to claim “every right” to ban something else that has a comparatively trivial impact.  There is no such right.  In fact, every notion of rights in our society cuts in the other direction.

This example illustrates that someone can be unambiguously lying when making claims in a non-scientific field.  It is possible to make a statement in political philosophy or some other area of ethics that is clearly false as a false scientific claim.  Someone saying “I personally think it is ok to….” is not a lie.  But misrepresenting the entire basis on which our society is built?  I would have to say that this is a rather worse lie (and a rather worse commentary on our educational system) than merely falsely claiming that something causes cancer.

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