The Selfish and the Selfless

I guess that Progressives believe in Progress, and Progress is something that makes the world a better place. They think the world can become a better place.

Smoking bans are seen as Progressive. Smoking bans make for a smoke-free world. And ridding the world of smoke (of any kind whatsoever) is seen as Progress.  Clean air is good air, and unclean smoky air is bad air. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

The UK Clean Air Acts of the 1950s were mostly intended to reduce the burning of coal, and to increase electric and gas usage. But once one form of smoke could be outlawed, the way was open to outlaw  every kind of smoke. And that could – and eventually did – include tobacco smoke. So smoking bans were regarded by Progressives as a further extension of the Clean Air Acts. Smoking bans made the world into a cleaner and better place.

But there’s at least one big difference between coal smoke and tobacco smoke: nobody actually liked coal smoke, but lots of people liked tobacco smoke. Nobody ever lit lumps of coal just to produce some smoke: they lit it to generate heat. But smokers never lit tobacco to produce heat: they lit it to generate smoke. Tobacco smoke was what smokers wanted.

And that meant that while Progressives approved of smoking bans, smokers disapproved. With smoking bans, smokers lost the smoke they liked. One bunch of people gained, and another bunch lost. But the smokers’ protests were ignored.

More or less anything can be seen as Progress if the people who don’t like it are ignored.

It might be said that smokers don’t want Progress. Or that smokers don’t believe in Progress. Or that smokers don’t think the world can ever be a better place. It might even be that smokers are people who just want to soothe and calm themselves as they live in a difficult, imperfect world. They’re not trying to make the world into a better place: they’re just trying to make it a bit better for themselves.

Faced with a trying and difficult world, Progressives set out to improve the whole world, while smokers  just try to make it slightly better for themselves. It’s the same with drinking: people feel better after a beer and a cigarette. It doesn’t make the world a better place: it just makes them feel better for a few minutes.

Smokers are often regarded as selfish in their pursuit of their own private, personal good, and Progressive antismokers are seen as their selfless pursuit of the common good.

And it’s from this that the Progressive antismokers acquire their moral superiority: they’re not claiming to act selfishly for their own benefit, but selflessly for the benefit of everybody.

But can anyone act for the benefit of everybody? Is it possible to act for the benefit of everybody while simultaneously disregarding the opinions of everybody else? After all, the opinions of smokers are always disregarded by antismoking Progressives. Anyone who claims to act for the benefit of everybody is also claiming to themselves know what’s better for everybody. And anyone who is claiming to know what’s better for everybody is giving primacy to their own opinion, and this is itself a form of extreme selfishness: I know best. So the supposedly selfless Progressives are actually the most selfish.

Equally, smokers who act solely for their own benefit are not claiming to know what’s good for everyone else. They don’t claim primacy to their own opinion. They allow other people to have their own, differing opinions. In this manner supposedly selfish smokers prove to be selfless: they don’t impose their opinions on everyone else.

People are always acting selfishly all the time. I eat when I want to eat, not when everyone wants to eat. I put on a raincoat when I want to wear one, not when everyone wants to wear one. I go to sleep when I want to sleep. not when everyone wants to sleep. But I don’t expect everyone else to eat when I want to eat, or sleep when I want to sleep. Yet this is what the antismokers want: when they don’t want to smoke, they demand that nobody smoke. And they will make laws to enforce their demand.

Can anyone ever really act selflessly? Can anyone stop being themselves, and start being everyone? No, we can’t. We are all each always helplessly ourselves, and ourselves alone. The only thing we can know about anyone else is what they tell us about themselves. To the extent that we ignore other people’s opinions, to that extent we pay attention only to our own opinion. To the extent that antismokers ignore smokers, to that extent they listen only to themselves,

About Frank Davis

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11 Responses to The Selfish and the Selfless

  1. Clicky says:

  2. Clicky says:

  3. Smoking Lamp says:

    Frank, You make excellent points here. Progress cannot be made through mass oppression of a segment of society. Progress requires consensus and integration of all stakeholders views. Ideally, that involves a ‘non-zero’ solution where there aren’t a set of winners and losers–but rather all of society wins. That may result in compromise but should not be predicated on surrender of liberties and natural rights. And it shouldn’t be based on deception, manipulating data, and suppressing dissent. Smoking bans are not a progressive end; they are regressive and oppressive. That said, smoking bans must be repealed or at least amended to allow smokers the liberty to smoke in designated indoors and outdoor spaces. Draconian putative taxes must be removed, and restruictiobs on free expression by smokers must end. S/L

  4. Philip Neal says:

    I would not be so certain that “progressives” expect progress any more. Since the collapse of communism and the embrace of third way policies by the major left wing parties, socialism has ceased to be a serious prospect, yet no new vision has replaced it.

    Two things, which I believe to be related, distinguish the young firebrands of today with those of forty years ago. One is that they no longer offer promises of abundance. Take energy, for instance. Socialists from Clement Attlee to Michael Foot wanted production and consumption of electricity to be centrally controlled because they genuinely believed that planning would make it more abundant than market forces could. The green planners and rationers of today hold out no such hope. They want us to embrace a Spartan future because economic growth is allegedly unsustainable.

    The other difference concerns history. The left no longer regard their movement as marching on from the darkness of the past to the bright dawn of the future. This, I think, is the key to issues like statues of historical personages and “decolonisation” of the curriculum. If you do not expect the future to be better than the past, you have no particular expectation that the past was worse than the present. Figures like Lincoln and Churchill can no longer be presented as being of their age in some ways and commendably ahead of it in others because there is nothing ahead of us to look forward to.

  5. Lepercolonist says:

    Well stated, Frank. Another great essay.

  6. RdM says:

    An alternate view to the ‘mainstream’ ideologies, ideas, is that of, or from, the ‘loner’.
    I think this relates to smokers quite well as well.

    I bought this book after reading a chapter or so at a time on a couple of months apart visits to friends in the country with a great guest bedroom, multiple bookshelves.

    I decided I had to own my own copy to finish it, I bought from but it seems to be no longer in stock; I see Amazon shows it:

    An essential defense of the people the world loves to revile — the loners — yet without whom it would be lost

    The Buddha. Rene Descartes. Emily Dickinson. Greta Garbo. Bobby Fischer. J. D. Salinger: Loners, all — along with as many as 25 percent of the world’s population. Loners keep to themselves, and like it that way.

    Yet in the press, in films, in folklore, and nearly everywhere one looks, loners are tagged as losers and psychopaths, perverts and pity cases, ogres and mad bombers, elitists and wicked witches. Too often, loners buy into those messages and strive to change, making themselves miserable in the process by hiding their true nature — and hiding from it. Loners as a group deserve to be reassessed — to claim their rightful place, rather than be perceived as damaged goods that need to be “fixed.”

    In Party of One Anneli Rufus–a prize-winning, critically acclaimed writer with talent to burn — has crafted a morally urgent, historically compelling tour de force — a long-overdue argument in defense of the loner, then and now. Marshalling a polymath’s easy erudition to make her case, assembling evidence from every conceivable arena of culture as well as interviews with experts and loners worldwide and her own acutely calibrated analysis, Rufus rebuts the prevailing notion that aloneness is indistinguishable from loneliness, the fallacy that all of those who are alone don’t want to be, and wouldn’t be, if only they knew how.


    I recommend it! – as a ‘loner’ – ;=})

    • RdM says:

      Hmm, the Amazon link resulted in white space.

      Title of the book was Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto.

      Search it out.

      • RdM says:

        Does this work?

        Just curious.

        I really wish there were preview/edit functions for comments in WordPress here!

        Are there no such simple plug-ins or whatever to enable such to be available?

        At the least, it would provide the dignity of correcting spelling mistakes, or formatting.

        In some forums or bulletin boards you get 5 mins or so to review and correct a post.

        A bit meta I know but I am still curious.
        Sorry to dump multiple posts!


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