Why Smoking Is Wrong

I always have the suspicion – and it’s really only a suspicion – that real objection of the antismokers in Tobacco Control to smoking is an ethical one. But because we have no shared system of ethics, or any accompanying ethical language, they are unable to articulate their ethical objections to smoking, and resort instead to (very weak) medical and epidemiological arguments against smoking. They can’t say what they want to say, which is “Smoking is the wrong thing for you to do,” so instead they say “Smoking will kill you.” And they can’t say that “Smoking is wrong,” because they’d immediately be asked to say exactly what’s wrong with smoking, and how to differentiate between right and wrong.

This isn’t a problem just for Tobacco Control. It’s a problem for everyone. For we’re living in an era when, in the West at least, the ethical certainties of Christianity are being lost. We urgently need a new system of ethics, and a new ethical language, and we haven’t got one.

But I may have a new system of ethics. It’s the one I’ve been developing, on and off, in Idle Theory (back online again). I’d like to try to set out that system of ethics, and use it to make the case that Tobacco Control is actually right to say that “Smoking is Wrong.” I’m going to mount a purely moral argument against smoking, on behalf of the antismokers in Tobacco Control who are unable to mount such arguments.

In Idle Theory all living things are regarded as having to work to stay alive. Plants have to construct and deploy sunlight-catching leaves. Herbivorous animals have to work to find and eat plants. Carnivorous animals have to work to capture and eat herbivorous animals. And men have to work to stay alive by growing plants (such as wheat) or raising  animals (such as cattle). The entire system is driven by sunlight, the energy of which is stored in plants and animals.

Now these living things don’t all have to work equally hard. Some of them have to work long and hard to stay alive: they lead very busy lives. And some of them lead very idle lives. In fact, some people lead very busy, hard-working lives, and some people lead very idle lives. And a degree of idleness, which ranges from 0% idle to 100% idle, can be assigned to every living thing. A 0% idle living thing spends its whole time working to find food energy to stay alive. And a 100% idle living thing would have to do absolutely nothing to find the food energy needed to stay alive: it would just fall into its mouth like rain. The idleness of any living thing may be estimated using the idleness equation.

If idle time is depicted as a man lying back on an easy chair, smoking a cigarette, and busy time is depicted as the same man digging with a spade, various different degrees of idleness may be depicted graphically:

Now I would dare to suggest that there are no 100% idle living things. There may be a few 99.999% idle ones, but there are no 100% idle ones. But there are lots and lots of 0% idle ones. There are lots and lots of living things which are working all the time to find the food they need to stay alive. And these ones are on the brink of death, because living things die when, even working every hour of the day, they are unable find enough food to meet their energy needs, and so they lose energy, grow thin, and eventually cease functioning (i.e. die).

Now I hope that nobody disputes this as a simple factual description of the life of plants and animals and humans. But they might dispute it if I was to go on to say that this factual description of life is also a moral description. What I have just described is a world that has a very distinct upside, and a very distinct downside: a 100% (or near-100%) idle life is a much better life than a 0% idle life.

To clarify (or perhaps obscure) this 100% – 0% system, I might say that, in many ways, it recreates the moral cosmos of Christianity, with the condition of 100% idleness corresponding to Heaven, and 0% idleness corresponding to Hell. In Heaven, the angels idly pluck harps, or perhaps smoke cigarettes. In Hell, the “fallen” angels toil unremittingly. There are of course some differences from the Christian cosmos, in that the Heaven and Hell of Idle Theory are experienced during any living thing’s lifetime, rather than after its death. But we are all trying to get to Heaven, and that Heaven will be a perfect bliss of unending idleness.

At this point, some irate moral philosopher will probably interrupt and accuse me of illicitly trying to derive “ought” from “is”, values from facts. Why should you say that your 100% idle Heaven is any better than your 0% idle Hell? Why is one of them any better than the other? We all know that you’re an idle fellow, and that you love to sit idly in pubs drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, but there are a lot of decent, hard-working people who actually enjoy working, and gain great satisfaction from working hard, and in keeping as busy a possible. Just because you like idleness doesn’t mean that everyone else does too.

Very well, I would reply, let us construct a world in which there is a population of people, half of whom love idleness, and half  of whom love busyness. The former endeavour to lead lives that are as idle as possible, while the latter endeavour to keep themselves as busy as possible. And let us say that both are very successful in their endeavours, and the idleness lovers all lead 95% idle lives, and the busyness lovers all lead 5% idle lives (or 95% busy lives), and are both very pleased with themselves.  But there is an asymmetry here, because the busy people are much nearer to the 0% idle brink of death than than the idle people. And we may reasonably expect that some of these very busy people will stray over the brink, and die. And so gradually, over the course of time, idleness lovers will come to predominate over busyness lovers. In the end, the population will consist only of idleness lovers: there will be no busyness lovers. And in this manner, through a process of natural selection,  the ethical supremacy of idleness over busyness will be established. And it will always be re-established every time this particular exercise is conducted.

Having thus established the ethical supremacy of idleness over busyness, I next hurry on to assert that whatever is “good” is whatever increases idleness, and whatever is “evil” is whatever decreases idleness. In fact, it is an absolute imperative for people to try to increase their idleness, and their likelihood of survival. Necessity, it is often said, is the mother of invention. And necessity (Latin ne-cessare, to not be idle) is lack of idleness.  And so the idleness lovers are always trying to think up new ways of making their lives easier and more idle. All the technologies of the world – knives, hammers, engines, computers, roads, bridges, medicines – serve to increase human idleness is one small way or other. It’s much easier and quicker to drive along a metalled road in a Ferrari than it is to traverse the same road on a mule, or even a horse. It’s much easier and quicker to meet and talk to people using telephones than it is to climb on a horse and ride over to visit them. And these are all good things. Roads and Ferraris and telephones are good things, and they are good because they increase idleness. All the greatest inventions, from the stone axe onwards, of all the greatest inventors throughout history have only ever served to increase human idleness in some small degree or other.

But if there are whole class of such useful tools that increase idleness, there is also a whole class of things which don’t increase idleness at all, but actually decrease it. There is a whole class of luxuries and amusements and pastimes which do nothing whatsoever towards increasing idleness, but merely help people to while away their idle hours. They are, in a profound sense, a waste of time. They are a waste of the idle time that could have been used to think up new ways of increasing idleness.

Art and music and literature are all different ways of frittering away valuable idle time. So are games, like chess and golf and football. And so are fashion and romance and gambling and drugs. And to the extent that people become dependent upon these fripperies, and cannot imagine living without them – become addicted to them -, they have burdened themselves with an extra burden of unnecessary things that they must provide themselves with, and they are therefore acting to reduce their idleness. And that is the reason why they are bad. That’s why drinking and smoking and eating (any more than absolutely necessary), and playing games, and dancing, and wearing silly impractical shoes (like high heels) is immoral. They are all immoral because they all make life a little bit harder.

In summary, in the cosmos of Idle Theory, idleness is better than busyness. And any act is good to the extent that it increases idleness, and evil to the extent it decreases idleness. The truly good things in life are all those various technologies – engines, computers, phones, TVs, jet planes, roads, bridges, etc, which serve to increase idleness. And all the truly bad things are those which serve to decrease idleness , by imposing an extra unnecessary burden of work on humanity – in the form of art, music, literature, games, fashion, gambling, drugs, and so on.

And this is why Tobacco Control is fighting a good, noble, valiant, but unfortunately uphill battle against a tide of completely unnecessary luxuries and amusements and pastimes to which Western consumer society has become addicted in one way or other. And not least of these futile, wasteful pastimes is the habit of smoking cigarettes. And if Frank Davis knew better (and he does know better, because he has just demonstrated that he knows better), he wouldn’t be fighting against Tobacco Control, but for them. And he would also stop smoking. He wouldn’t stop smoking because it’s killing him (it probably isn’t). Nor would he stop smoking because it’s a smelly, dirty habit (it isn’t). Nor would he stop smoking for the sake of all those people who can’t stand the slightest odour of tobacco smoke (they’re all silly ninnies). No, he would stop smoking because it is, in his own Idle Theory, an unnecessary (and immoral) extra burden of work that he has imposed upon himself.

But here I am putting an argument into the mouth of Deborah Arnott or Stanton Glantz that neither she nor he has ever made. They are not actually making such an argument. And they are not doing so because they have never heard of Idle Theory. So the previous paragraph should really be deleted. And this is why I’ve crossed it out.

But if they could articulate the true reason for their war on smoking (which they can’t), I strongly suspect that the argument that I have just set out will be very close to it. For I believe that these puritans (who are not to be confused with fun-loving Puritans), who resolutely condemn all pleasures and pastimes and amusements and luxuries, regard them all as unnecessary and obstructive impediments. And it’s not just the antismokers in Tobacco Control who think this way, but also all the environmentalists and global warming alarmists as well. They think that humanity is killing itself off through its addiction to deep pile carpets, pop music, cheeseburgers, Coca Cola, and every other consumer good on sale in every department store in the Western world – including cigarettes.

And what’s wrong with their point of view? Where have they made a mistake? I will attempt to address this question another time.


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25 Responses to Why Smoking Is Wrong

  1. Emily Wieja says:

    Leaving us with a cliffhanger! Is the answer that it is impossible to waste idle time? Because if we have to work hard during idle time to think of more tools to further reduce idle time, then it isn’t idle time anymore. And wouldn’t we then become “addicted” to thinking of ways to increase idle time?

  2. Rhys says:

    Forgive me. I have to. But this is their song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXIAwQsgfcc

  3. Rose says:

    In the beginning, smoking was wrong because it was unchristian and therefore a sin.

    “shall we, I say, without blushing, abase our selves so farre, as to imitate these beastly Indians, slaves to the Spaniards, refuse to the world, and as yet aliens from the holy Covenant of God? Why doe we not as well imitate them in walking naked as they doe? in preferring glasses, feathers, and such toyes, to golde and precious stones, as they do? yea why do we not denie God and adore the Devill, as they doe?”

    But now you can’t say things like that so smoking is wrong because it’s produced by Big Industry and Big Industry is wrong because it advertises it’s products, just like the newly vilified, Big Sugar, Big Salt, Big Food and that old favourite Big Alcohol, which leads us into temptation.
    They may be made up of small business, but together they make up one big one which is always wrong.
    The wages of sin is of course is death, so all these products will naturally kill you.

    And the only thing that can save us is Big Government which our government funded saviours petition constantly.
    Big Government is fine with this as they help to save us with Big Taxes for our own good.

  4. garyk30 says:

    About the only mostly idle folks are the older retired folks.

    Older folks have a higher death rate; so, ildeness leads to a greater chance of death and not a lessor chance.

    We are never idle, work is energy expended to accomplish some end an our hearts are always working to move blood through our system.

    Even at rest our brains are working and consuming a lot of energy. That is, working.

    • garyk30 says:

      It is well established that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body’s total haul.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I think I’m being idle if I’m sitting in a pub drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. I think most other people who saw me would also think I was being idle. I don’t think they’d be impressed if I said, No I’m not being idle at all. I’m breathing, and my heart’s beating, and look, I’m lifting the beer to my lips, and that’s hard work. I don’t think there has been any company I worked for which would have bought that excuse. I’d be fired on the spot.

      I only think I’m busy working if I’m engaged in doing something productive, like digging a ditch, or writing a computer programme, that requires coordinated mental and physical activity towards some goal (and which I am usually being paid to do it).

      The reason the idlest are likely to outlive the busiest is because the idlest have lots of spare work capacity, if life gets difficult. Someone who is 95% idle can double their workrate, and still be 90% idle. Busy people don’t have much spare idle time that can be set to work. Someone who is 5% idle can’t double their workrate at all.

      • waltc says:

        And then there’s the Zen theory of these things. Don’t try, and it comes. Stop thinking about it, and the needed idea comes while you’re idly drinking and smoking. (I’ve gotten some of my better ideas in a long hot shower just staring –idly, it seemed– at the faucets. And then, otoh, once when I was hopelessly stuck about halfway through in a novel, I got the solution out of nowhere while doing the mindless physical work of retiling the bathroom floor.)

  5. Clicky says:

    • Rhys says:

      The reason they’re giving in that article is that smokers have an 80% higher chance of infection after back surgery than non-smokers. I dutifully looked up the rate of infections post-back-surgery, and it’s 2%. That makes the risk of infection if you’re a smoker 3.6% (80% increase).

      So if the 80% higher estimate is even true, it’s still a low infection rate. It isn’t like it goes from, say 4% non-smoker to 80% smoker.

      Then again, we know why they’re really doing this. And it galls me that they’re misleading by figures to try and cover it up.

    • waltc says:


  6. For the newcomers to Idle Theory, the raw concept of busyness could be replaced with the more specific concept of forced labour (i.e. not the fact of being busy per se, but that of having to keep busy on practical grounds). To achieve a starker opposition of terms, replacing the word idleness with self-determination would have the advantage of immediately implying the latitude to keep unnecessarily busy if one is so inclined. That way the various mindsets of humans faced with free time (and the attending menace of tedium) would be accomodated:
    • Those who feel impelled to rack their brains in order to find ways of making busyness even more optional.
    • Those who’d rather practice or invent ever more elaborate pastimes, cultivating and expanding the vast array of more or less refined, frivolous, yet sometimes also sublime “fripperies” humankind turned its skills and attention to from free time immemorial.
    • The real masters of idleness, ready and able to while away any amount of time they might have on their hands without the help of any sort of elaborate pastime.

    When survival is no longer at stake, the necessary avoidance of tedium on the part of those that are not ‘natural-born idlers’ becomes the other mother of invention. In such cases, the means still consumes time and effort (e.g. making and practicing musical instruments) for it usually remains practical even though the purpose no longer be.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Re “forced labour”: Well, you could say that all living things are forced to work to stay alive. It’s their inescapable condition. But nobody or nothing is forcing them. There isn’t a camp commandant and armed guards forcing them to work. If that was how it was, there would be the possibility that the forced labourers could revolt and free themselves. But there is no such freedom to be had that way. So, in that sense, we’re not living in a a forced labour camp.

      “Self-determination” is fine. So also is “freedom” (versus “constraint”).

      “The real masters of idleness”: I may well be one of these. For I can while away any amount of idle time. But I do have my elaborate pastimes. Idle Theory itself is a pastime of mine. So is my orbital simulation model. And this blog. None of them have earned me anything. Anyway tedium has never been a problem for me. I’m always intensely involved in something, from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep (and perhaps all through the night as well). Tedium, I suspect, grows from a certain lack of imagination. If you can’t think of something to do, then it’s pure lack of imagination, because there are always an infinity of things to do.

      Anyway “idleness” can indeed be replaced with terms like “freedom” and “self-determination”. I often replace it with “wealth”. More recently I have even been replacing it with “God” and “Heaven”. But there is always a need to also find a term that corresponds to “busyness”, such as as “constraint”, “poverty”, “Hell”.

    • narbanor says:

      But nobody or nothing is forcing them

      Re forced labour”. I didn’t have in mind the implications of direct coercion found in this expression, where ‘forced’ specifically means ‘coerced’, but more generally all those instances where doing nothing is not an option. ‘Force’ ultimately means “strength” (cf. French adjective fort(e) meaning ‘strong’) and that may be physical but also moral or intellectual in nature, including all those reactions that are imposed on the individual by circumstances, rather than spontaneous, hence the larger acceptations of the word ‘forced’ found in e.g. “hunger forced him to forget his scruples” or “children forced into early maturity by heavy responsibilities”.

      Sometimes there’ll have not been enough windfall to supply you with fruit, and you’ll have to go to the trouble of plucking some yourself. I imagine some of the angels up there miss the things they once had to do down here, so they’ve turned to the plucking of harps instead :). And maybe the word ‘Heaven’ as used in Idle Theory simply applies to situations where doing nothing is always an option?

      • Frank Davis says:

        maybe the word ‘Heaven’ as used in Idle Theory simply applies to situations where doing nothing is always an option?

        In Idle Theory, idle time is time in which nothing needs to be done. Heaven is when nothing ever needs to be done. i.e. when there is 100% idleness, and all time is idle time.

  7. Doesn’t tobacco help people toil? Winston Churchill almost single-handidly directed the British World War II effort and he, according to the New York Times, is estimated to have smoked 300,000 cigars in his 90-year-life. Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander for the Normandy invasion and he is said to have smoked four packs of unfiltered Camels a day at the time. If they hadn’t smoked would they have been able to achieve what they did?

  8. slugbop007 says:

    We do have a new moral ethic, Political Correctness. It covers a lot of territory and is expanding exponentially.


  9. slugbop007 says:

    Or will you end up like the transport lorry in ‘The Italian Job’?

  10. slugbop007 says:

    Hi Rose, My brothers and I saw The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1966.


  11. Pingback: Random Reflections | Frank Davis

  12. Pingback: Paradise: A Beer and a Cigarette | Frank Davis

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