Proposed smoking ban for USU

A few students have asked to see the column I wrote on the proposed campus-wide smoking ban here at USU.  It was published in our campus newspaper, The Utah Statesman.  Click here for my article, click here for a nice article on the topic from fellow philosopher Charlie Huenemann.  Here is my article in full:

I applaud Ms Frischknecht’s desire to let student voices be heard in the debate about the proposed smoking ban. However we should be wary of the majoritarianism that would follow from making the rule based on the most voiced opinion. Instead of simply counting voices, we should pay attention to the operative principles behind those opinions. Why do people support the ban and do they have principled reasons for doing so?

At best, those advocating the smoking ban are making an argument based upon the harm principle. The harm principle is that principle of jurisprudence that would justify the prohibition of any action that causes direct harm to others. Cases such as murder or theft are the most obvious examples of this principle at work. Now there is plenty of evidence that second-hand smoke is harmful to others in indoor spaces. But the only studies I could find on outdoor smoking found that the pollutants were highly localized and that notable negative effects occurred only within 2 feet of the smoker. We might then think that you could avoid the ill effects of second-hand smoke outdoors by just not being a close talker. More seriously, I find it hard to believe that a quick walk across the TSC “smokers patio” or crossing paths with a smoker on a sidewalk has any measurably negative health effect at all.

But if the harm principle were the real motivation for the ban, those arguing we have a “right” to clean air would be much more interested in banning automobile traffic during inversions than banning smoking on campus. The effects of our bad air are far more detrimental to our health because the PM 2.5 levels are much higher and we are exposed for far longer periods of time. If they really wanted to make a difference with our air quality, they would take up unpopular proposals like making it even more inconvenient for students to park near campus so as to encourage public transportation use. But since I hear quite the opposite on those issues, I am skeptical that the harm principle is the real motivation behind the proposed ban.

What I think is really going on is that many students on campus just don’t like the smell of cigarette smoke and would prefer to never have to smell it on campus or, worse, they just prefer to never see anyone doing something they don’t approve of. But do such preferences, no matter how widely held, justify a ban?

When I consider this question, my mind turns to a comment J.R.R. Tolkien made in a letter to his son: “The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men.  Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

In a state widely known for its libertarian leanings and its emphasis on free agency, it is odd to find such enthusiasm for a rule that basically bosses other people about. If the smell of cigarette smoke is a sufficient menace, there are other ways of dealing with it that fall well short of the bossiness of this proposed campus-wide ban. Enforcement of the existing 25 feet from building entrance ban would be the place to start. If this is not enough, we might consider creating established smoking zones in identified problem areas.

Much of my argument has depended on the claim that the motivation behind the smoking ban is not a principled argument but rather an attempt to force majority preferences on the whole campus community. But let us suppose I am wrong about this. Even if it were a moral issue, I would argue that we should not have a campus-wide ban.  I do not say this because I think the law and morality are divorced. Quite to the contrary, as one who subscribes to the natural law I think morality is the ultimate justification for the law. But no advocate of the natural law believes that we should use the law to prescribe every virtue or forbid every vice. As Saint Augustine notes, “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence.” Saint Thomas Aquinas argues that the attempt to forbid all vices will actually backfire. Given the inability to legally enforce the whole of morality, laws that try to do too much will be ignored and this will result in an evil even greater than the forbidden vice – namely a general contempt for the rule of law. As such, our human law should not attempt to prohibit or forbid everything that violates the natural law or the eternal law. To the particular issue at hand, the campus-wide smoking ban would be a token ban. It would be unenforced and likely unenforceable, thus inviting Aquinas’ concern about fostering contempt for, in this case, other campus rules.

I would encourage the USU/SA representatives and students across campus to back away from the temptation to use what power they have to enforce majority preferences on the few. The greatest virtue for anyone in a ruling class is knowing that the thing to do with power is to restrain its use.


About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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