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Are Smokers Rational?

Smoking We are bombarded with research concerning the health risks of smoking, yet tobacco remains popular. Are those who continue to smoke rational? According to a line of argument offered by philosopher Derek Parfit, the best answer is 'yes' – when they smoke, most smokers are acting rationally.

I recently began my ascent of the mountain that is Parfit’s 1,400 page monster On What Matters, which commences with a long and detailed discussion of why subjective accounts of reasons are wrong, and why objective accounts of reasons are right. In essence, Parfit says that to have a reason to do something is to have circumstances in which anyone who was rational would act in that way. Therefore that you like chocolate is not a reason to eat chocolate (according to Parfit), but that we desire pleasant experiences is a reason – indeed, the reason – to eat chocolate, assuming you like it. 

While developing his arguments, Parfit gives a great example of how one can behave rationally and yet still fail catastrophically:

Suppose that, while walking in some desert, you have disturbed and angered a poisonous snake. You believe that, to save your life, you must run away. In fact you must stand still, since this snake will attack only moving targets. Given your false belief, it would be irrational for you to stand still. You ought rationally to run away.

He notes that this is not what we ought to do in the “decisive-reason-implying sense” yet it is still rational to run away in this scenario. This discrepancy – between the rational behaviour of the individual and the objective reasons that apply – is interesting to me even though I don’t make use of either true or false beliefs in my own philosophy. For me, true and false are artefacts of the system we call logic, and connecting real world situations to logic always involves passing through fiction. The failure to recognise this can occasionally lead to some serious philosophical errors, and although Parfit’s mind is razor sharp, his faith in objectivity sometimes blinds him to this important disconnect between theory and experience.

As an example, consider Parfit’s stated attitude towards smoking:

…suppose that, unless I stop smoking, I shall die much younger, losing many years of happy life. According to all plausible objective theories, this fact gives me a decisive reason to want to try to stop smoking.

Assuming (on the basis of his comments elsewhere) Parfit really believes that it is a fact that smokers “die younger losing many years of happy life” then it is only a reason to stop smoking if the many years of happy life are more important to the smoker than smoking itself. I don’t think Parfit really considers whether there might be reasons for smoking other than it being an ongoing addictive habit. (No smoker starts smoking because it is addictive – they have other reasons – in the conventional sense – for doing so).

In his earlier Reasons and Persons, Parfit advances a fascinating perspective based on Thomas Nagel’s idea of a serial person. Who you are in different parts of your life is a different serial person – so, for instance, Chris Bateman before he read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (the first book of philosophy he read) was a different serial person to Chris Bateman afterwards, or Chris Bateman after he had his first philosophy book published. This account of serial persons is one of the many interesting perspectives offered in Reasons and Persons.

Parfit argues that we might have duties to our future serial persons, and that the responsibility of later serial persons to the actions of their earlier selves might be obviated. Different people will have different responses to these two different-but-related claims. Personally, I think it is problematic to suggest, as Parfit apparently would, that we should not smoke because we have a duty to our future serial person selves. (Although my wife, who is a nurse, thinks this is an interesting way to argue for better health choices). I would suggest that it is part of the quintessential nature of youth to be stupid and reckless, and part of the nature of later life to come to terms with the consequences of this carelessness. The freedom of youth is not worth sacrificing for extended life expectancy. For non-hypothetical people, quality of life is more important than quantity.

Parfit’s reasons are disembodied from real life in a way that I find troublesome. It is true that on average smokers die younger. Statistics vary, but it’s not atypical to claim smokers die between 60-70 years of age, while non-smokers life to 70-95 years of age. That’s a big discrepancy – if your interest is how many years of life expectancy you rack up. It might give you Parfitian-style objective reasons to not smoke, but that doesn’t mean it gives you reasons to not smoke. As Bill Hicks joked in 1991: “They proved that if you quit smoking, it will prolong your life. What they haven't proved is that a prolonged life is a good thing. I haven't seen the stats on that yet!”

If we compare the angry snake thought experiment to the situation of a typical young smoker, we get something particularly interesting. The young smoker knows cigarettes are bad for their health (that’s precisely what makes them cool for some people, and why ‘Death’ brand cigarettes enjoyed a market) but they believe that smoking at the current time – to be cool, to enjoy the relaxing hit of nicotine, to fit-in etc – is worth the cost to their future selves. This might well be a false belief. But in parallel to the angry snake example, it is still rational for these people to smoke provided they have a justification for doing so that they believe outweighs the negative health effects.

Parfit is explicit about this. Using an example concerning a hypothetical person who believes that smoking will extend their life because they know someone who smoked until they were aged 100, he observes:

I want to smoke only because I enjoy living, and I believe that smoking will prolong my life. Does the irrationality of my believe make my desire to smoke irrational? It is best, I suggest, to answer No. ... Given my belief that smoking will protect my health, my desire to smoke is rational. I am wanting what, if my belief were true, I would have strong reasons to want.

Thus, on Parfit's account of rationality, smokers with justifications for their habit are rational, whatever the nature of that justification. The only exceptions would be justifications that were, in themselves, contradictory e.g. wanting to smoke because you believed smoking would damage your health when you had no reason to want worse health. (Parfit still says that we should still claim that smokers are "being irrational" but suggests it is the smokers' beliefs that are irrational, not their desire to smoke, nor their actions in smoking).

My goal in sharing this account is not to give smokers or young people a green card to behave recklessly (ha! as if they needed my blessing in the first place!), but merely to point out that life is a precious gift and you spoil any present by offering it with strings attached. Possible future consequences are worth considering, but (contra Parfit) they do not necessarily provide decisive reasons for acting one way or another. Many people who don’t smoke live long and happy lives; many people who don’t smoke live long and miserable lives. Smoking shortens both scenarios – but this is only a bad thing for the people in the first case, and no-one can know the circumstances of their future until they get there. Parfit may believe there are decisive reasons not to smoke, but on his own account smokers who can justify their habit are at least acting rationally. This is perhaps more than they can hope to hear from most philosophers.


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I used to smoke, but have since moved to an e-cigarette under the assumption that it can't be as bad as a cigarette - or rather there is no proof yet of it being any worse, and as one isn't inhaling tar or the by-products of combustion.

When I smoked, I knew the statistics of getting lung disease or cancer, but what I didn't know - and could never know until it happened - is whether I would fall into the emphysema or cancer group.

I think we all fool ourselves that we're the lucky ones - and indeed some of us will be.

Chairman: "I think we all fool ourselves that we're the lucky ones - and indeed some of us will be."

Absolutely! Getting fair perspective on these issues is impossible when the data is reported as statistics and we are necessarily individuals. Either you believe it won't apply to you, or you go the other fork and get paranoid about every little thing. :)

Sounds like one might need a pretty good definition of "rational" to stack this up against. I assume Parfit has a suitably wordy one?

Parfit spends the first hundred pages of his new book providing just this kind of definition. ;) He never quite gets it to a point of conciseness, however, as it is mostly developed through a series of propositional arguments.

That's unfortunate, as it sounds like Parfit's definition has some nuances that (for example) my working definition doesn't have explicitly. Rational has to be rational-to-the-individual due to perception, but I'm interested to know how Parfit would class an act performed because "the voices in my head made me do it".


Let me check my notes... Ah, here we go - this is the most concise definition Parfit provides (but be aware that Parfit's philosophical method involves a lot of propositional experimentation, and numerous revised definitions).

Anyway, from Chapter 5: Rationality, section 16: Practical and Epistemic Rationality:

"We are rational insofar as we respond well to reasons or apparent reasons. We have some apparent reason when we have beliefs about the relevant facts whose truth would give us some reason. Our desires and acts are rational when, if our beliefs were true, we would have sufficient reasons to have these desires, and to act in these ways."

(This definition might be dependent on his earlier definition of a 'reason', by which he broadly means a justification for taking action).

With respect to the voices-in-my-head, Parfit would probably say that the actions thus carried out would be rational, but that the beliefs would not be. That is, one is rational in acting on the voices in the head in so much that if the relevant beliefs were true, they would (presumably) give a reason for acting - but this doesn't make the beliefs themselves rational.

All the best!

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