Thursday, March 31, 2011

Engage! Mill’s "On Liberty" and the MSU Campus Smoking Ban

The Political Theory Consortium met last night to discuss John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, particularly chapter four, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual.” Our objective was to discuss how Mill helps us think about the recent 61-39% vote at Montana State to ban smoking on campus.

Let me start by saying this: I am no fan of smoking. As I said at our gathering this evening, I come from a family of smokers (some now ex-smokers, to whatever extent that is possible). I was always the one left in restaurants holding down the table after dinner while everyone else went outside to smoke. You would think that, at the very least, having to remember everyone’s dessert and coffee orders would have prepared me well for the job of waitress. It didn’t. My short stint as a waitress was a miserable failure. And it turns out that most people who work in the restaurant industry smoke, so even my breaks were kind of lonely.

My point is that I’m an odd defender of the so-called “right to smoke.” But after steeping myself in Mill (we read chapters 1, 2, and 3 of On Liberty in my Modern Political Thought class this week), I am having a hard time figuring just how this smoking ban is consistent with a commitment to individual liberty in those areas of life that don’t do harm to others.

In case you haven’t read Mill lately, here’s what he says:

“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 a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”

This is famously known as Mill’s “harm principle.” He makes clear that he only has in mind purely self-regarding conduct here. So, for example, a person should be free to drink themselves silly if they want, but if this results in their physically injuring someone, or their failing to uphold their “distinct and assignable obligation” to others (say, this leads them to neglect their children), then it’s no longer purely self-regarding conduct. Importantly, though, we have no right not to be offended by others, and Mill rejects any claim to rights that “society” has against, for example, what it might deem morally deviant behavior that entails no identifiable harm.

Mill is kind of the thinking-girl’s Liberal (in the sense of “defender of liberty”), because he also had a strong sense of civic virtue, social responsibility, mass public education, and a deep commitment to an ideal of humans as progressive beings. He was an avowed feminist, against slavery, and just generally ahead of his time. He was no atomistic libertarian. For example, he wrote,

“Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it.”

We will inevitably shower admiration on those who live lives we think are “good.” And those whose conduct or character we deem deficient may rightly incur our loss of consideration (and not complain about it). But our loss of consideration cannot be justifiably turned into prohibition or prosecution, where no damage or definite risk of damage exists. A deep aversion to others is not, for Mill, a reliable guide for invoking the law against them or destroying their reputation and socially ostracizing them. Reading Mill is good therapy for anyone irked by the contemporary American inclination to moralize.

So what does all this have to do with the smoking ban at MSU?

A lot hinges here on the empirical evidence regarding whether exposure to second-hand smoke outside in the open air poses a health hazard. It may. Some studies suggest that exposure in outside spaces is not insignificant. These would be very localized spaces, but conceivably the five foot area immediately outside the door to a building would qualify, and since the 25 foot no-smoking zone around buildings at MSU is not respected by many smokers, the question of harm is relevant. If smokers routinely observed this smoke-free zone, the question of harm would not carry much water.

But if harm to others is the primary concern, then why does the pending ban also include smokeless tobacco? This seems to me to be classic self-regarding behavior. Perhaps the concern is that when people who chew tobacco spit on the sidewalk it is really gross. But so is spitting generally. Why not ban spitting? Or if the concern is more broadly to “promote health,” then why not remove soda machines from campus buildings, and only serve fried food at the Student Union one day a week? Why not make physical education part of the Core requirements? I wont even raise the obvious and intractable question of enforcing this ban, but it is certainly an issue.

Our discussion last night dug into all these matters and more. There was no consensus, I’ll say that. But we did arrive at an interesting question: How might this issue be dealt with creatively, in a way that didn’t invoke the force of law against a minority of people who are only potentially doing something that is other-regarding and harmful? How might “politics” – or the face-to-face confrontation about how we live together – come into play? What if smokers who respect the 25 foot no-smoking zone around buildings chastised those who fail to? What if non-smokers who were put out by the smell of cigarettes they encounter upon leaving the library, for example, said “I would really appreciate it if you all would move away from the door”?

There are lots of non-legalistic options open to us, but they require courage, responsibility, and on-going, and personal, negotiations about values, virtues and vices, and that is hard work. But if college is going to train students for life beyond the bounds of campus, this seems like as useful and important a lesson as any.

So stay tuned for the recap from our next meeting, where the topic will be “revitalizing the political.” When I say “engage,” I don’t mean lock and load. I mean On Liberty.


Ken & Carol said...

Thanks Professor, a nice discussion of the problem. Are there students in your consortium?

Sara Rushing said...

Thanks for your response, and for reading the blog!

Yes, the Political Theory Consortium is a student club that meets every other week during the semester. My blog posts are just the recap of the great discussions these students engage in.