Sunday, December 30, 2012

"It's not just wrong, it's illegal."

"Buying tobacco for minors
It's not just wrong
It's illegal"

Why does this ad bother me? You're just gonna have to take my word for it that I have no desire to see (much less encourage) minors smoking. I think smoking is a filthy habit, and I don't look too kindly on the use of addictive substances that are filthy and/or a serious risk to your health (nor do I tend to rate very highly the intelligence or at least judgment of those who choose to try them). Wholly apart from the question of whether children need to be "protected" from things they [allegedly] don't understand (which is an argument of noble intention, but one that's all too easily - and often! - used for nefarious purposes, especially when it's not allowed to be countered), and ignoring even the vast and significant difference between minors who are seventeen and minors who are three, children are people and I absolutely do not want them to start smoking (now, yesterday, or in the future).

Nevertheless, this ad bugs me. Why? First, let me point out something that goes unnoticed and overlooked far too frequently. Just because you have a qualm with something (this ad, for example), does not mean you do not agree with its message. But often, the way a message is sent has alternative consequences (both intended as well as unforeseen) both parallel and also perpendicular to the message being sent. Therefore, arguing the details of the way a message is sent should not be mistaken for arguing with what the message is trying to say. Indeed, it may very well be the case that a message is having unintended consequences that work at cross-purposes to what the message is attempting to accomplish. In which case, only by attacking the message and picking apart its meaning can it be amended to affect the right kind of effect that was intended all along. Or, as in the case with this tobacco ad, it could be sending out an admirable message at the cost of compromising some other issue it was not intending to address. In either case, we cannot be too reticent to allow complaints to be lodged, even when we think they may be in bad taste.

So what compromising message is this tobacco ad sending out, if it's nothing to do with the gist of preventing kids from getting their hands on tobacco? It's this conflation by proximity of the concepts of what is right/wrong and what is legal/illegal. The latter is pretty straightforward, if not always clear on the details. A thing is either against the law or not. If it is, then it's illegal; otherwise it's safe to assume that it's legal. When we speak of of right and wrong, however, it's not always or immediately clear in what sense we mean. There is a sense that relates to society and ethics - in the way that stealing from somebody is "wrong" because it violates that person's right to property. This sense is quite well tied up with the concept of legality, and so would be somewhat redundant in the context of this ad. Instead, I think it's clear that the ad is implying (if read in reverse) that buying tobacco for minors is not only illegal (a straightforward fact), but that it is also morally wrong. As in the sense of being "just wrong", wrong in essence, wrong because a moral authority deems it so.

And it's not law's place to make that determination. Law exists to set down the rules that require society to function - namely, they govern the way people are allowed to relate to one another, to promote order and protect the equal rights of all. This is a question of ethics. Morality is something else altogether, something that answers the question "how can I lead a virtuous life?", that concerns itself with decisions people make in their own lives, not about what codes of behavior are required for society to function, but about what acts must be aspired to in order to reach a higher level of righteousness. And the answers to these questions depend on subjective beliefs. What's more, the law does not exist to punish people for leading unvirtuous lives, for committing immoral or sinful deeds, or for not living up to their altruistic, spiritual potentials. That is between a man and his god, not a man and his government. The government's rules must concern themselves with civil rights, not with the qualities of virtue.

So the ad, "buying tobacco for minors is...wrong" is not a political ad - it's a religious ad. But "buying tobacco for illegal" is the other way around. And it's dangerous when the two get mixed up, because then you have people getting confused and thinking (as too many do already) that if it's "wrong", then it is also (or else should be) illegal, and that if it's illegal, then it is "wrong". This is dangerous thinking not only because it's far from always being true, but also because it predisposes people to reject any skeptical approach toward the law (giving conservatives an undeserved advantage) and promotes a sort of blind allegiance to the authority of the state over matters of virtue. By thinking this way, you are inviting the state to issue you your spiritual beliefs. And this is not the state's job. What's more, the state that makes it their job is a corrupt one that will oppress you (the only question is, do you want to let it?). Freedom was formed on the basis of separation of church and state for a reason.

And one of the symptoms of blind allegiance is the concept of things being "just wrong". This argument leaves no room for debate. If something is wrong, it's wrong for a reason (and hopefully a good one). Nothing is just wrong. "Just wrong" is a tactic used on unquestioning, weak-willed people, to dictate a belief without allowing room for debate (usually because the belief profits someone, yet could be easily defeated if one were to apply sound reasoning to it). "It's illegal" is actually a much better argument (for critical minds) than "it's wrong" because, as I have discussed, right and wrong are subjective, but the law is not. Well, except in matters of interpretation, but there's not a whole lot of room for that in cases of buying tobacco for minors, I imagine.

So there you have it. I don't think kids should smoke (although at the end of the day, I would prefer to let them make that decision for themselves, or at the very least put it in the hands of their parents, instead of giving that decision to the state and making it a legal standard). I don't even think adults should smoke (but, again, that's their decision), so I'm not especially concerned about laws restricting the use of tobacco (other than from a basic civil rights perspective - which is important, I don't deny, but of all the fights out there to fight, there are others more pressing), but this ad bugs me because it's trying to "preach" to me about what is right and wrong, while making a statement about the law. The point of the ad is "it's illegal", but in getting there, it insists on including that "it's wrong". What if I disagree? Hmm? It's still illegal - which is why that is a better argument. It means something to me: that I'll be punished if I disobey. But this profession of wrongness encourages me to lose my respect for the law, since it doesn't reflect my beliefs. But it's not supposed to. So let's stop saying things that seem to suggest it is. In that respect, the "buying alcohol for minors could cost you" ad is a lot more honest, even if it is an excessively authoritarian response to a humiliatingly futile struggle.

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