The Right To Smoke: A Christian View
by Sean Gabb
First published by the
Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco
(FOREST), London, 1989,
ISBN: 1 871833 05 1
If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
(1 Cor., 14:8)
I do not wish to deny that there are health hazards associated with smoking – just as there are health hazards associated with virtually all activities people find pleasurable, from drinking to jogging.
Around two fifths of the adult British population do smoke. This has been a declining fraction of the whole during the past thirty five years, or ever since the first hard evidence of the likely risks to health were published. In 1970, 128 million cigarettes were smoked here. By 1984, this figure had fallen by 22 percent, to 99 million.1 99 million cigarettes, even so is still enough laid end to end to stretch between New York and Babylon. Two fifths of the adult population is still around 18 million people.
Not surprisingly, then, smoking and tobacco are a public issue of considerable importance. Its importance has grown in recent years with each new revelation of the dangers involved. Some part of this, to be sure, has to do with the possibility that non-smokers might be at risk from inhaling the allegedly carcinogenic fumes of others’ cigarettes. But, in the absence of anything approaching definite proof, talk of `passive smoking’ must be thought for the moment of secondary value. Easily the largest part of the issue concerns the degree to which smokers should be allowed to harm themselves. What debate, therefore, is currently taking place may be seen as a specific skirmish in a more general struggle. This struggle is between the advocates of authority and the advocates of freedom. On the one side, there are the British Medical Association, representing the doctors, and the small pressure group, Action on Smoking and Health, representing itself. These want, if not the outright prohibition of tobacco, then certainly very severe restrictions on its consumption. This involves, at the least, tight controls on the advertising of tobacco products, and progressively heavier taxation of them. Their propaganda ranges from the solidly factual to the absurd. Sometimes pictures are handed round, showing the effect of tar on the average pair of lungs. Occasionally, someone like the anti-smoking expert, M. A. H. Russell, goes about proclaiming such arrant nonsense as that “[o]nly about 15 percent of those who have more than one cigarette avoid becoming regular smokers.”2 On the other side is an as yet loose coalition of committed smokers and libertarians.
The interest of these first is evident. They enjoy their habit, and resent any threat to their right to go on doing so. The members of the second may or may not themselves enjoy smoking. What moves them is a passionate belief that no one should be forced to do what others regard as in his or her best interest. Following John Stuart Mill, they assert that “[o]ver himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”3
As yet, the political parties are largely unaligned in the debate. True, the Labour Party inclines to the anti-smoking lobby. It is on record as having proposed bans on cigarette advertising save at the point of sale,4 and on the placing of cigarette vending machines.5 But the Conservatives cannot be regarded as inclining to the other side. It was Sir George Young, then a junior health minister in the first Thatcher Government who said in 1980 that “[t]he traditional role of politicians has been to prevent an individual causing harm to another, but to allow him to do harm to himself. However, as modern society has made us all more interdependent, this attitude is now changing.”6 Young was moved elsewhere very shortly after. But the Government still spends about 3.5 million per year on anti-smoking campaigns. It still pressures the tobacco companies into further `voluntary’ restrictions on their advertising and promotion. My own suspicion is that its continuing tolerance of the industry owes less to the ideas of J. S. Mill than to the œ5,000 million or thereabouts raised each year from taxes on tobacco products.
This is, however, beside my current point. What I propose here to discuss is whether there can be any specifically Christian view of the matters raised above. There are Christians who also have decided views on smoking. A couple of years ago, for example, what the newspapers described as “two hundred church and community groups” joined in calling on the Government for a significant increase in tobacco duties.7 Again, it would be incredible if, of the eighteen million Britons who smoke, none was additionally a devout churchgoer. But, in both these cases – and especially in the former, judging from its context – the taking of sides in the argument has not been connected with any fundamental point of theology. Rather, it has been an instance of what Edward Norman calls the “politicization” of religion.8 It shows the adoption by churchmen of whatever political ideology may currently be the general fashion, and its being given a religious gloss subsequently. Arguments purely over the extent of individual harm or the nature of individual rights in society are secular matters. They can have no validity to a Christian, deliberating as such, unless they can be first connected with some precept of the Divine Law. Before any answer can be attempted, our proper objects of enquiry must be stated. These are: whether smoking tobacco is contrary to this Law, and, if so, whether there is any implied right or obligation to use the coercive power of the State against smokers. Since these are largely subsumed in the wider question, of what scheme of human politics is most compatible with the Divine Law, this also ought to be examined. But first to be discussed is smoking as a matter in isolation. With this I shall begin – though not until I have dealt with a number of preliminary issues which I feel it my duty not to avoid. For, addressing myself as I am to an audience which is, at least in part, hostile or indifferent to Christianity, I must first answer the inevitable question in reply to my own – of whether it matters what God is supposed to think about smoking; or, more generally, of what religion has, in the modern world, to do with politics and morality. Many atheists do ask this, and seem to think it a clever question. It has two answers.
I Religion, Politics and Morality
The first is simple and obvious. Sacred and secular matters always have been connected in the popular mind, and probably always will be. And, sad though perhaps it is to mention, the history of Christianity has been, to an extent uncommon even with religion, a history of persecution. Its first legal recognition came in the year 313, with the Edict of Constantine. This was a grant of toleration, on a basis of complete equality with every other faith in the Roman Empire. It was not enough. The Christians were a minority, but they had the Imperial family as converts. Their bishops were both able and eager to influence the direction of State policy in religious affairs. Eighty three years later came the Edict of Theodosius, suppressing the Pagan ceremonies. The performance of rites which had come down in unbroken sequence since before the time of Homer, and which formed the agreed basis of classical civilisation, was made a capital offence: and the laws were rigorously enforced. It was not until the year 529 that the Athenian schools of philosophy were closed by the Emperor Justinian. But Paganism by then had been effectively dead for generations. Its wiping out remains a very impressive achievement.
Then there were the heretics – or those rival Christians who in any doctrinal argument had the weakest force of arms. Few people seem greatly worried today whether Christ is homoousios or homoiousios; whether his substance is identical to that of the Father, or merely similar to it. Those Christians in the fourth century who spoke only Latin were somewhat perplexed, since the two Greek words both translated as consubstantialis . But, in the eastern half of the Empire, it was a question of the highest importance. Street mobs fought pitched battles over its correct resolution. Bishops kicked each other to death. So far from its eventual subsiding, further questions came to depend on it. If Christ were homoousios, had he two natures, or one, or two and one? If he had the two and one, might he still have only one directing will? The Arian and Monophysite and Monothelite controversies together continued during more than three centuries, blasting the lives and happiness of millions.
As a regular issue, heresy became prominent in Western Christianity only with the revival of learning. But the struggle, when it came, was even more frantic than it had been in the east. One of the minor controversies in early Bysantium had concerned whether the body of Christ were incorruptible. In early modern Europe, the greatest one concerned whether, or to what extent, it might be edible. The wars of religion, fought ostensibly to settle this point, lasted more than a century, ending only in 1648. The internal persecutions died out only in the century following this. The point had not been settled. What happened was that the educated classes for the most part found other interests. Toleration was, at first, the child not of agreement, nor of mutual charity, but of indifference.
An obvious reply to this, of course, is that the spirit of persecution is now almost entirely alien to Christianity. So, in doctrinal matters, it is. To a Catholic, Protestants are no longer damnable heretics. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been felt more appropriate to call them “separated brethren”. Few Protestant leaders have appeared unwilling lately to be photographed beside the Pope. No respectable divine now blames the Jews for having killed Christ. Moslems and Hindus are invited to ecumenical services, and are even welcomed when they occasionally turn up. This flabby syncretism may have done much for the public order. It has certainly been carried to an extent embarrassing to the more thoughtful Christians. If He can be approached by other paths, which are equally valid, why should God have sent His only begotten Son to be scourged half to death and then nailed to a cross? If the Hindu can have a thousand gods, what was so bad about the Classical Pantheon? Doctrinal persecution is certainly alien to the larger of the modern churches. But this kind of it is only the more noticeable – because, since the Enlightenment, the more shocking – half of what Christianity has been taken as standing for.
The general case for persecution was most clearly stated by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan in the fourth century. To have – or to be able to acquire – the means of suppressing what is abominable to God, and not to use them, he told the Emperor, is to partake of its guilt.9 Evidently, this applies in any dispute as to the nature of Christ. It applies equally with regard to observing his moral teachings, apparent or inferred. Following from this second conclusion, politics, already subordinated to religion, becomes wholly fused with it. For example, in the Pagan Empire, divorce was easy; suicide carried little reproach; homosexuality was variously honoured or ignored. Each is said to be a sin. In Christian Europe, each was at least discouraged by law. And, if they have explicitly rejected the first conclusion, most Christians continue to argue and behave as though they still accepted the second. Few seem willing to disclaim the right to impose their moral code on others. Perhaps the Hierarchy in Catholic Ireland might never dream of trying to hold an auto da fé in Phoenix Park. It has, nevertheless, opposed every effort made to legalise birth control. The Church of England hires its buildings out for every purpose, from revivalist baptisms to Rastafarian pot parties. Some of its ministers have even tried giving religious sanctuary to a Trotskyite atheist. When the question arose, of letting the shops open on Sundays, it took up the full jargon of the Oxford Movement, and proclaimed England still to be a “Christian country”.
If, then, a Christian could be persuaded that smoking were in some respect sinful, he would be logically obliged to advocate measures against it. He would be obliged to become more extremely and fanatically intolerant on the issue than Action on Smoking and Health and the British Medical Association combined. The secular case against tobacco is that it leads to illness. More or less its grimmest claim is that `patients who ultimately die from chronic bronchitis or emphysema usually endure about ten years of distressing breathlessness before they die’.10 This is sad. What is it, though, compared with the sufferings of the damned – in that place `where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched’?11 This is what may lie in wait, either for the sinful smoker, or for the undutiful brother in Christ who left him unsupported in his weakness.
II Is Smoking Sinful?
Anyone finding this unlikely might care to note that smoking actually has in the past been regarded as sinful. In the seventeenth century, Catholics were threatened with excommunication if caught pipe in hand. In Calvin’s Geneva, it was not only banned, but the ban was placed among the Ten Commandments. The secular arm gave its usual support. German smokers faced the death penalty until the end of the century. In France, Louis XIII, though not so drastic, still tried forbidding the use of tobacco except by medical prescription.
If smoking really were a sin, and the advocacy of persecution were a requirement of the Faith, then persecution is what the true believer must, in all conscience, advocate. And this is one reason why our present enquiry is an entirely proper one. It might tell the non-believer what to expect should Christianity ever become less languidly militant than it admittedly now for the most part is, even in those matters on which it continues to claim a special authority. Or it might furnish him with useful arguments. But, as justifications go, it is highly contingent. Ten or twenty years ago, when religion seemed on the whole to be a declining force in human affairs, it would have been less useful than it is today, when the reverse may be true. In ten or twenty years time, it may be of no account whatever, or of burning importance. The second justification is not at all contingent for the average non-believer. He may laugh at religion. He may give deliberate offence to others, by calling it a superstitious frenzy or a device for keeping people quiet. Even so, his entire philosophical outlook requires a religious foundation. This religion need not absolutely be Christianity. But it must be something very similar to it. For, without God, there is no morality. I could try supporting this simply by giving a short history of the present century. Christ had more than trees in mind when saying “by their fruits ye shall know them”.12But I will adopt a more rigorous proof.
III The Nature of Morality
Whatever I feel I know directly. What you feel I can know only by guessing from your outward appearance. Given sufficient power of will, you could hide your last agony from me. Even made aware of this, I should feel only sympathy for you. This is a sentiment stronger in some of us than in others; and it depends in all of us on the attending circumstances. Imagine, then, that I am bigger than you, and have lured you to a place where I feel secure of there being no witnesses. Assuming that the act, or its consequences, gave me enough pleasure to overbear whatever feelings of sympathy I might harbour, state one reason why I should not cut your throat.
You might say that it would be wrong. But this is no final answer. I ask what is meant by the words `right’ and `wrong’. Broadly speaking, there are in secular moral philosophy two modes of justifying the use of these words.
According to the first, they are terms of shorthand, applied to actions or rules of conduct, in so far as these are believed useful to the welfare – however this be defined – of a certain group. To the main sort of utilitarian, my cutting your throat, leaving aside any distress caused to you, might serve as a precedent to other acts of murder. Indeed it might. It might also be that if life and property were held in less general respect than they are, there would be much less of both. Were the common good my standard for measuring conduct, killing you would certainly be wrong. I am not talking generally, though, but about me. If it should stand between me and what I want, I see no reason for not ignoring the common good. You might tell me that doing so is in my `real’ interest; that my setting a bad example raises my own chances of being murdered. None of this touches me. I am the best judge of what is good for me. If I compare all the advantages, present and remote, of killing you, with the small chance that the finding of your body might encourage some stranger to knock me on the head, and they remain positive, I still see no reason to put the knife away. As a theory of what the law should be, utilitarianism is wonderfully convincing. For an individual’s moral obligation to obey them, it gives no basis whatever.
You might turn, then, to the second of the two modes. According to this, right and wrong are the opposing extremes on a scale of values, the existence of which latter may be deduced from observing the order and harmony of the material world. Every existing thing is said to have its own natural function. The function of man is to live as a rational being. In other words, my harming you would be a breach of the `natural law’, and a violation of your rights under it. I could as easily quote Aristotle or Aquinas on this point. Instead, I go to Ayn Rand: `Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to work for his own values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.’13 If you could harangue me on this lofty theme, for long enough, and with enough eloquence, you might, perhaps, make my heart bleed, and thereby have me put the knife away. But you might do this just as well by describing the tears of an imaginary wife and a few children. Utilitarian arguments are valid, even if less widely than those putting them often claim. This sort of natural rights argument is simply absurd.
In the first place, since Rand was an atheist, the words natural law as used by her are meaningless. They are what Roscelin is said to have called a flatus uocis – or, to translate him crudely, a verbal fart. A law can be one of two things. It can be a command, to disobeying which a penalty is attached. It can be a statement of what is seen invariably to happen. The words `if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast’14 constitute a law. The words `a projectile having an escape velocity of less than seven miles per second cannot be sent beyond this planet’s gravitational field’ constitute a law. The words `cutting my throat would be a violation of natural law’ constitute ten words. I expect no punishment if I kill you. I expect no difficulty in killing you.
In the second place, the whole natural law tradition, atheist or religious, is based on a defective epistemology. It begins with Aristotle. He claimed not only that “the beginning of our knowledge lies in the senses”, but also that what we perceive with them is an objectively existent reality. To the left of my wordprocessor keyboard, I see a cup of coffee. Let me confirm this with a few basic tests, and, in Aristotelian terms, I have reason to believe that this object exists, and will continue in existence whether I look away, or leave the room, or drop dead.15 Following this view of sensory perception, Aquinas went so far as to assert that, while the highest knowledge comes from God alone, “there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach, such as that God exists.”16 Ayn Rand, though she never formulated anything so brilliant as the five empirical `proofs’ by which Aquinas sought to show this, was no less ambitious. From her belief in an objectively existent reality, she claimed to derive an objectively binding moral theory.17 While arriving at radically different conclusions, the Marxists begin with the same presumption. To them, at least some people are able to know what reality is. Nearly every other rationalist scheme is similarly based.
Yet it should be obvious that no conclusion is ever more secure than the premises on which it rests. Imagine that I land on a desert island and, coming across a bone, say “I think this may be part of a human skeleton. Therefore civilised men once lived here”. My argument would be invalid. For the same reason, so are those of the rational moralists. To see this as clearly as possible, let us state the premises of their argument. These are that we perceive things as they really are, and that we use our reason to understand their nature. Let us take them in reverse order.
What allows us to make sense of the external world is the notion of cause and effect. Believing that event A is the cause of event B is our means of explaining or predicting the one from observing the other. I wake and measure the temperature outside. It is five degrees Centigrade. I see a thick frost on the ground that was not there the previous night. I believe the cause of frost to be sub-zero temperatures. Therefore, the temperature in the intervening time has been lower than it is now. Likewise, I measure the outside temperature at midnight. It is minus five degrees. I anticipate frost in the morning. Everyone uses this kind of reasoning. Yet it has itself no rational basis.
I paraphrase David Hume. One billiard ball that is in motion strikes another that is at rest. The first loses its motion. The second acquires one. If we examine these events, we reach three conclusions. First, they occur in a particular order of time. One ball is in motion before the collision, the other one after it. Second, the balls must touch for their changes of behaviour to occur. Third, if we recall every previous like situation known to us, events have always proceeded in a like manner. Beyond this, we see nothing else. When we talk about the communication of force, we are not describing anything that we have seen, but only a collision of billiard balls. Nor are we stating a logical necessity. Anyone never having seen such a collision, or anything analogous to it, could just as easily imagine the two balls stopping or bouncing back from each other. Force is an inference from the constant conjunction of these events, not an explanation of it. If we predict their continued subsequent juncture, we are assuming that the future will be like the past – an assumption which, by its nature, we cannot prove. I now quote Hume:
[ “[T]here is nothing in any object, consider’d in itself, which can afford us a reason for drawing a conclusion beyond it; … even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have had experience.”18 What inferences we do draw are the product of an habitual association of ideas, rather than the conclusions of our reason.
This said on the relationship of objects to each other, I turn to their existence. I think again about my cup of coffee. What do I know about it? If I wish, I can make myself see a pattern of colours. I can feel a warm, smooth solidity. I can smell something. I can taste a pleasant bitterness. At no point do I ever perceive a cup of coffee. I experience sensations of one. This is not playing with words. Sensations are separable from objects, and, so, are not necessarily dependent on them. When asleep, I have known very satisfactory cups of coffee without one ever having been `really there’. It is easily conceivable that the whole universe is no less a figment of my imagination. If a sceptic never acts on this doubt, it is because the habit of believing in reality was securely fixed before he could begin reasoning about it.
Finally, there is the matter of whether the self can be proven to exist. It might be thought, following Descartes, that the assertion “I think, therefore I am” is “so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it.” The syllogism cannot be false. If it were, I should be mistaken; and, to be mistaken, I must still exist.19 That it is true I can scarcely deny. But it is only true at the moment of its conception. I exist now. I have no proof that I existed yesterday. In the film Blade Runner, one of the characters believes that she is a real person, and that she has memories extending back about thirty years. In fact, she is a robot, at most a few months old. The memories were programmed in by her maker. I have no assurance that I am any different; that, when I woke this morning, I had not just been brought into being complete with memories of a past existence. For that matter, I have no assurance that I was not brought into being an hour ago, or five minutes ago, or one second ago – or at any moment prior to the one of which I am immediately aware. Memory can be tampered with. Also, the future is entirely unknown and unknowable. I have no more certainty that I shall still exist then than that I existed in the past. In just what `the present’ consists no one understands. It may be an irreducible but definite particle of time. It may be an infinitely fine division between past and future. In either case, rational knowledge of personal existence is far less certain than it may at first seem.
IV The Limits of Reason and Scepticism
“Which of you” said Christ, “by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?”20 Which of us indeed? For all the claims made on its behalf, reason, by itself, tells us nothing about the world. Aware of this, we are free to choose two courses. The first is to retreat into absolute or moderated scepticism. We can take the mental habits referred to above as our sole guide, and not worry about their lack of rational basis. We can carry on talking about morality, and sometimes even half believe ourselves – but only in so far as we wish to influence the behaviour of others who still believe the concept to have any clear meaning. Otherwise, we can accept that God exists, and that questions about His purpose in having placed us here are entirely proper. I should stress that I am not proving His existence in any general way. I am simply asserting its logical necessity for certain kinds of thinking. If we want to use the words `right’ and `wrong’ and `rights’ and `nature’, and want them to mean anything, we must understand that reason is not a self-contained entity, but a meditation on faith. It need on this account be no less powerful, nor usually any less deadly against credulous stupidy. It must nevertheless, be considered as a strictly secondary force. Credo ut intellegam, said Anselm – “I believe so that I may understand.”21
V Fundamentals of Christian Theism
Let us, then state what it is necessary for us to believe before we can hope to understand. In doing this, we also state the minimal assumptions of Christian theism:
First, there is a God, who is the supreme, benevolent Governor of the universe.
Second, He has established a code of morality, and dispenses punishments and rewards according to how we conform to it.
Whether or not either of these is true – or, if true, can be proven – is presently of no account. A Christian is defined by adherence to them. They underpin the thought of nearly everyone else. From the first, we deduce the existence of an orderly external world, and of ourselves within it through time. Being Supreme, God can be “the Maker and Preserver of all things, both visible and invisible”.22 Being benevolent, He is that Maker and Preserver. Otherwise, there must be a chance of my being a deluded spark of instantaneity, and everything else, including you, nothing at all. This would be incompatible with the Divine Nature as stated. From the second, we derive both an absolute morality and a firm reason for keeping to it.
VI Natural Law and Morality
Furthermore, the existence of the world having been shown a necessary consequence of the first assumption, it seems reasonable to suppose that the various articles of this morality might be revealed to us, not merely by the directly inspired Word of God, but also by the funda- mental nature of His Creation. We can seek guidance from Paul’s Letter to the Romans – “Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”23 Or, although our paths of reasoning merge only after having sprung from different sources, we are perhaps able now to agree with Aquinas that “there is in man a first, innate inclination to good, which he shares with everything so far as it desires the maintenance of its existence according to its own nature. Through this, the natural law pertains to all that serves the continuation of human life and all that impedes death. Second, he is inclined to certain more specific ends according to the nature which he shares with the other animals. Those ends are termed part of the natural law `which Nature has taught all animals’ – such as the attraction of the sexes, and rearing of children, and like things. Third, he is inclined to good according to his rational nature, which nature is proper to man alone. So he is inclined by nature to seek knowledge of God, and to live in society. Under the heading of natural law come all acts pertaining to this inclination – chiefly that he should avoid ignorance, and be honest in his dealings, and all other such actions.”24
VII Reason and Revelation
These both might seem on first glance very different approaches to morality. But the first premise of our current scheme of arguing is that there is a fundamental harmony of reason and revelation. According to Aquinas, the specific nature of man is to use his mind, and to observe a morality which is rationally deducible by a process of observation. It is with regard to his reason that man is distinct as a species from the other animals. This is no necessary denial of those parts of his nature which are generic to him and all other things, in so far as these are required for his sustenance as a moral individual, or to the propagation of his species. According to Paul, we are obliged as God’s creatures to a certain course of action. Some aspects of this he states explicitly. Others he leaves to our own finding, having indicated a method of finding them. It is evident that, if we are to follow this course, we must do whatever is conducive to following it most effectively. This surely means that, unless directed otherwise by our primary purpose as moral beings, we are to seek the continuation of our lives. Therefore, by whichever of the ways we care to proceed, there is no contradiction of the other. According to either, an act can be sinful in itself – directly against God or against nature – or, though apparently indifferent in itself, connected by association with whatever sin to which it might tend. To return to the example given above, my cutting of your throat for pleasure or gain would be a contravention both of Paul’s injunction against killing, and of our natural requirement to be honest in our dealings with others. My merely producing the knife, on the otherhand, would be indifferent or sinful depending on what use for the thing I had in mind. All which having been said, we move to an examination of the first part of our question posed initially – namely, of those ways in which smoking might be held contrary to nature, or to the otherwise known will of God, and therefore in both cases sinful.
VIII Smoking and Natural Law
Now, if there is any fact about smoking more certain than its dangers, it is that people find it enjoyable. Its very dangers, indeed, are testimony to its pleasures. Smoking kills, people are told; and they continue to smoke, even if in diminishing numbers. I recognise that I am discussing pleasures which I have never experienced, and which no person who has seems able to describe to me. But I am quite sure that they exist. Anyone who makes it his business to go about denying this is an unimaginitive fool. Tobacco has many pleasant effects, and their type and degree is oddly contingent on what they are wanted to be. It can soothe the nerves after they have been strained. It can steady them when some particular act of judgment or resolve is called for. It makes the company of friends more cheerful. It makes up for lack of company. Smoking can be very enjoyable.
It is, moreover, the most universal of those pleasures which we do not also share with the animals. Just when and by what means the American Indians discovered to what use the cured leaf of the plant nicotiana tabacum could be put is unknown. But its use was the one Indian custom which the conquering Spaniards not only never tried suppressing, but actually themselves adopted. Once revealed to the world, it spread within a few decades to every part of humanity not absolutely shut away from foreign trade. Tobacco was smoked in England and in Spain, in Mecca and in Rome, in Russia, in China, in Japan. Peoples utterly dissimilar in every other respect of manners had tobacco smoking in common. No kind of religious observance, nor eating bread, nor drinking alcohol, were so widespread. Even in those times and places until recently where smoking was difficult or unfashionable, tobacco was instead chewed or ground up and sniffed. Use of the plant has been no passing craze. It is no custom, like eating hamburgers or wearing jeans, which has been associated with any particular way of life, and is often embraced or rejected as part of that greater whole. It is a pleasure common to the whole of mankind. No one who identifies pleasure with sin could ever fail to notice it. And that there have been, and still are, Christians who believe in this identity is undeniable.
IX Pleasure and Sin: The Christian Case Against Puritanism
While there had been a small ascetic movement throughout the first three Christian centuries, it had its real beginning and most spectacular phase in the period following the conversion of the Roman Empire. Their faith no longer persecuted – and soon, indeed, became a condition for public advancement – the more severe Christians began withdrawing in great numbers into the Syrian and Egyptian deserts. They saw the pleasures and conveniences of city life as so many snares of the Devil. Their belief was that, the greater the misery they could suffer on earth, the more certain and the sweeter their bliss would be in Heaven. Their biographies stagger the mind. How much is recorded truth, and how much wishful thinking or plain falsehood, is often impossible to say. One Macarius of Alexandria is said to have slept in a marsh for six months, and to have welcomed the continual mosquito bites there as so many Divine gifts. Others of his kind are said to have carried iron weights strapped on their bodies, or to have passed whole months in clumps of thorn bushes, or to have fasted themselves into blindness, or to have eaten only filth, and that very seldom. They never washed or changed their clothes. Some crawled round under the Egyptian sun, naked except for their long hair. Of all these, though, none was so memorable as Simeon Stylites. A youth of thirteen when he left shepherding and became a monk, one of his penances was to tie a rope about himself so tight that parts of his body began putrifying. According to Antony, his devoted biographer, “[a] horrible stench, intolerable to the bystanders, exhaled from his body, and worms dropped from him wherever he stood, and they filled his bed.”25 At last, persuaded to leave his monastery, he ascended to the top of various columns, the last of which being sixty feet high and six wide. There he remained until his death, thirty years later. He is said once to have stood for an entire year on one leg, the other covered by open ulcers. Antony perched beside him, picking up the maggots that fell down and replacing them. “Eat what God has given you”, said Simeon.26 He was among the most celebrated men of his age. Pilgrims visited him from as far away as India. The Emperor Theodosius II consulted him on affairs of state. His funeral procession was followed by the Patriarch of Antioch, a government minister, six bishops and a small army. His image is still to be seen, painted on church walls throughout the Eastern Patriarchates.
Our own history offers nothing quite so colourful as this. Thomas Beckett and Thomas More, our most famous ecclesiastics, both had ascetic turns of mind. But our closest national approximation was made by the Puritans of the seventeenth century. Some never closed their eyes without visions of hellfire crowding into their minds. Their loathing of everything frivolous, or even tending to enjoyment, amounted at times to a mania. “The Puritan hated bearbaiting” said Macaulay, “not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”27 Their political ascendency no sooner began than was over. Their influence continued to be felt. It has certainly bequeathed us the most unendurable Sunday in the free world. Its afterglow may provide much of the energy to the anti- smoking pressure groups. Virginia Woolf’s maternal grandfather was a pleasure-hating evangelical of the simplest kind. He smoked a cigar once, “and found it so delicious that he never smoked again.”28 This is perhaps to be expected. But the same views were held by many Victorians who had abandoned every other tenet of their childhood faith. Frances Newman, younger brother of Cardinal John Henry Newman, though an ardent free thinker and radical, was just as strongly against tobacco – and, for that matter, alcohol, bright clothes and sex.
When I was first at school, I came across a boy who seemed as capable as anyone else of observing the world, but who had drawn a very strange conclusion. He had noticed how, when he fell and cut himself, our teacher would rush over and comfort him with plasters and little hugs. Sometimes, she would even let him off punish- ments for what he had done earlier in the day. There- fore, whenever he felt neglected, or thought he had done anything slightly naughty, he would stab some part of his body with a compass until he began to bleed. Fifteen hundred years ago, he would have grown into a desert saint. Alive today in the Phillipines, he would long since have taken to pushing skewers through his cheeks, or cutting his nipples off. As it is, he may well currently be a noted puritan in his own little circle. There would be no change of attitude required. The association of pain with holiness is one less of logic than of psychology. To hope that those martyred in His Name earn some special favour in the eyes of God is perfectly reasonable. It is, at any rate, a credit to humanity. To suppose that anyone can gain grace simply by rotting away, of his own volition, on top of a column, or denying himself every bodily pleasure, is childishly absurd. In so far as the ascetic state hinders the rational function of mankind – and its more extreme varieties certainly must29 – it is against nature. Even the purely negative varieties are an abuse of it. Anyone who has laughed for five minutes at a time, or chatted awhile with friends, will know how generally good some kinds of enjoyment are to the body and soul. There are texts in the Bible which, taken in isolation, approve the self-denial of every pleasure.30 But a fine answer to anyone who delights in finding these and bringing them out when others look happy, is to read from that entire book which opens with the words “[l]et him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine”;31 and continue till he goes away or faints with shock. Christ himself appreciated the pleasures of friendship. Certain theologians can put whatever bizarre gloss on it which takes their fancy. To any candid reader, the Last Supper can only be a touchingly human occasion. Here is a man facing inevitable death. Does he pass his last evening in a final round of fanatic penances? He does nothing of the sort. He arranges a dinner with his friends. “With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” he tells them.33 He tries letting them down gently from their expectations of what his kingdom will consist in. Exactly what he would have made of Simeon Stylites is rather hard to imagine. Very likely, he would not have approved. Almost certainly, he would not have been approved of.
Pleasure cannot be regarded as bad. In many respects, it is as proper to our nature as is eating or sleeping. But, of course, this is no end to the matter. Though pleasure is not in itself bad, only certain kinds of it can be thought entirely legitimate; and there are many kinds which are absolutely illegitimate. That kind potentially involved in murder has already been discussed. It remains open to say that smoking comes into the class of illegitimate pleasures.
X The Issue of “Addiction”
It can, in the first place, be called an addiction – this is to say, a subordination of the rational faculty to the purely animal appetites. If indeed this, it could be likened to alcoholism; and “[b]e not among winebibbers” says Solomon; for he shall come to poverty.33 Nor, says Paul, shall he inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.34 Efforts to prove that smoking really is a similar activity form a considerable share of the medical and polemical literature on the subject. I return to M. A. H. Russell, already quoted above. “Cigarette smoking” he says, “is probably the most addictive and dependence-producing object-specific self- administered gratification known to man.”35 He continues elsewhere that “[n]ot with alcohol, cannabis and possibly even heroin is the addiction so easily acquired.”36 “[I]t requires no more than three or four casual cigarettes during adolescence virtually to ensure that a person will become a regular dependent smoker.”37 `Once a smoker – always a smoker.’ This is only a slight exaggeration. It is unlikely that more than one in four smokers succeeds in giving it up for good before the age of sixty.38 Certainly, if the regular smoker could be identified with the habitual drunkard or opiate addict, the natural law verdict would be a foregone conclusion. But it is open at least to doubt whether this has been properly done. If we follow the usual medical definition, drug addiction, or – to adopt the favoured terminology of the World Health Organisation since 1964 – drug dependence, requires for its diagnosis the joint presence of three conditions. First, there is the pleasurable alteration of mood. Second, there is an increasing tolerance of whatever substance is taken, with a concomitantly required increase of dose to maintain its effect. Third, there is the occurrence of pain, mental or physical, on the ending of regular indulgence. Let us see to what extent these are characteristic of cigarette smoking.
Its pleasurable effects I have already mentioned. These are real enough. The plain fact, however, is that they differ from what we normally call intoxication not merely in degree, but also in nature. The effect of alcohol is to dull or even to suspend the workings of our more rational nature. Continued indulgence, on a large enough scale, is enough entirely to destroy them. The effect of nicotine is simply to alter them in various, comparatively mild, ways. No person of reasonably firm mind will go out of his way to avoid a group of people in the street just because he suspects most of them to have been smoking. Nor, if he is driving, will he feel inclined to slow down or move into another lane if he notices in front of him another driver who, to his certain knowledge, has smoked five cigarettes earlier in the evening. No one – at least, to my present knowledge – has ever smoked himself into an ungovernable rage, nor, for that matter, into Cardboard City. Assuming decent ventilation, I have never once thought any conversation with smokers a waste of my time simply on account of their smoking. It cannot, therefore, be said that the pleasures of the activity are in themselves gross and animalistic.
The broad pattern of alcoholism is too well-known to require much telling. It begins usually with the drinking in company of ale and beer or the lighter wines. These soon having lost their satisfying effect, it then progresses, either directly or through the fortified wines, to spirits. The point is eventually reached where, to produce the desired effect, amounts of alcohol are regularly consumed which would kill a moderate drinker or teetotaller several times over. This pattern is common to many other drugs. Dependence on amphetamine has been known to lead to a progressive escalation of dose from a daily 10mg to 1,000mg. The same is often true of heroin and the other opiates. It is not the case with nicotine. Many smokers do move on from an initial five or ten cigarettes per day to twenty or even forty, but hardly ever go beyond this. True, there are practical limits on the number of cigarettes that can be smoked per day: even one every fifteen minutes only amounts to sixty in fifteen hours. But it would be possible to increase the amount of nicotine absorbed by inhaling more deeply, or changing to stronger cigarettes or to cigars or to using a pipe. There is no evidence that this happens to any considerable extent. The evidence seems, indeed, to indicate that there is no need for much escalation of dose. After even years of regular smoking, those areas of the brain affected by nicotine retain most of their initial sensitivity.39 No hardened spirit drinker will regard a pint of weak lager first thing in the morning as anything but distinctly second best – and perhaps not even as that. A smoker tends to find one favourite brand of cigarette and thereafter to stay loyal to it; and each morning’s first lighting up, in the absence of any breakdown of health, remains no less pleasurable.
Some smokers do come to rely on their cigarettes to an extent where giving them up is an often painful effort. Yet giving up typically involves a depression and irritability which becomes fairly intense after a day or so, and then steadily reduces. But there is nothing about the initial physiological effects comparable with the hallucinations and convulsions that the normal alcoholic feels on drying out. It seems, also, that only a minority of smokers are dependent on nicotine. According to Russell himself, this becomes apparent only when twenty or more cigarettes are smoked per day.40 Yet, in a survey of British smoking habits the results of which were published in 1980, 25 percent of current smokers claimed a daily consumption of ten cigarettes or less; and 62 percent of female and 48 percent of male smokers claimed one of twenty or less.41 It should also be said that, in the ten years to 1987, 20 percent of British smokers are believed to have given up.42 These figures hardly support Russell’s bolder assertions. Even with heavier smokers, there are too many instances of a sudden stopping without apparent withdrawal symptoms for the normal concept of dependence to apply in full.
XI Is Smoking “Unnatural”?
In the second place, in the argument over its legitimacy as a pleasure, smoking might be said to involve an unnatural use of a bodily function. “If God had wanted us to smoke” the saying goes, “he would have given us chimneys out of our heads”. Plainly, it requires the drawing of tobacco smoke into the lungs, where nicotine can be absorbed into the bloodstream and carried thence to the brain.
Equally plainly, the lungs are not suited to this function; and they quite often fail under the strain put on them. But, to the extent that the natural function of the lungs is to introduce oxygen into the lungs, and that natural functions represent the will of God, it does not automatically follow that smoking is sinful. There was a time when it was believed that it had a useful medical purpose. It was thought a good prophylactic against the plague, and a cure for, among other maladies, headaches, gout and scabies. As late as 1901, the pharmacological authority, W. Hale-White, actually recommended it for the treatment of respiratory disorders.43 So long as this belief could be held, smoking, whatever its general merits, could be regarded as a proper activity within certain limits – just as puncturing the veins with needles is not today thought improper when its purpose is the maintenance or restoration of health. The present medical consensus is that tobacco has no therapeutic value. This consensus can, however, be challenged. One of the main purposes of the anti-smoking lobby, it seems is to link smoking with as many illnesses and defects of character as is humanly possible.
Thus, it has by now been associated with everything from childbeating to sleeplessness, and from careless driving to ulcers. Unlike with the various cancers, however, the precise causal sequence in these cases has not been fully established. It is possible that people who smoke increase their chances thereby of suffering these things. It might, on the other hand, be that those people already likely to suffer them are drawn to smoking; and that smoking might – admittedly at the possible cost of more serious problems later – alleviate them. In its essentials, this is no new argument. The late T. E. Utley was convinced that tobacco, with its soothing effects, had prevented many suicides and the occasional murder.44 Writing some years ago in the Guardian Polly Toynbee declared that “I don’t want to scream and yell at the family, so I smoke.”45 Around the same time, in the The Daily Telegraph, David Loshak put the same more general case as stated above.46 Granting it were a correct one, smoking would not be an unnatural activity for such people. As Aquinas said, when discussing the concept of “nature”, it may be “that something which is against human nature, as it may pertain either to reason or to the health of the body, may become natural to a man because of a certain deficiency in his nature.”47
XII Is Smoking “Slow Suicide”?
Even if it definitely were shown not necessary in some people for the preservation of their health – or necessary in only an inconsiderable minority – it still would not have to follow that smoking were sinful. Going to Aquinas again, he doubts that uses of limbs or organs contrary to their apparent functions are in themselves bad. It need not be true `that he sins who, for example, walks on his hands, or does with his feet anything which is more appropriately done with his hands.’48 Such acts become sinful only to the extent that they might impede a man’s nature. Obviously, the tendency of smoking is to shorten life, and this is about as severe an impediment as can be imagined. But not every shortening of life is equally a sin, or even actually sinful. As an act, it falls into not one but several categories. Before we can decide the status of smoking, we must first investigate into which of these its life-shortening tendency falls.
In 1658, the Jesuit priest, Jakob Baldé, asked in a tract published in Nuremberg against smoking “[w]hat difference is there between a smoker and a suicide; except that the one takes longer to kill himself than the other?”49 Medicine being then in its infancy, and there being a complete lack of any statistical evidence for his claim, Balde should not be seen as some remote precurser of the Royal College of Physicians. He wrote at a time when smoking tobacco was a comparatively new activity in Europe, and, as said above, was illegal in many parts of it. What we have in this instance is, as part of a wider denunciation, a rhetorical flourish decked out with supporting evidence drawn from anecdote. Removed, however, from its particular historical context, this is an extremely grave allegation, and one which, if ever made out, would be final condemnation of smoking in Christian terms. For suicide is unequivocally a sin. It is a crime against human nature as defined above. It is held strictly analogous to murder – the separation by man of a union of body and soul made by God.50 It has, indeed, often been thought worse than murder – as a cowardly flight from those apparent sufferings by which God, in His infinite mercy, tests and refines His creatures.51 Three and a third centuries after Balde, the harmful effects of tobacco have been made out with an often alarming weight of evidence. It might be thought that the modern posters which I have seen put up in hospitals – telling me that “Smoking is slow Suicide” – had unquestionable authority behind them. They have not. That smoking tends to shorten life is undeniable. But, no less undeniably, the mere shortening of life is not always suicide. If it were, the conventional judgments in church history would be radically at fault.
The anti-Catholic laws of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are one of the very few reasons for an Englishman to be ashamed of his history. Justifications have been attempted. But every persecution has been claimed by someone as necessary; and the merits of this one are no more nor less than any other. Lay adherents of the old religion were heavily discriminated against by law. Any of their priests arrested on English soil were subject, on proof of their status, to being hanged, then cut down while still alive, and disembowelled, castrated and dismembered. It was a horrible death; and it was made more horrible still when inflicted in the presence of a mob screaming its delight, and attended by every means of ensuring that the victim remained conscious as long as possible. Despite this, the English Mission was never short of recruits. Priests continued volunteering to come into England and perform those rites believed necessary for the salvation of those who remained Catholics here. One such was Thomas Macclesfield. He was arrested almost as soon as he landed. He was promised his release if only he would take the Oath of Allegiance to James I, so acknowledging his ecclesiastical jurisdiction under the Act of Supremacy. This was a real offer. It had been made to George Napper, another priest, in 1589. He had taken the Oath, and had been released. Another priest, Ralph Sherwin, though he turned it down, had even been offered an bishopric if he would only save his life. Macclesfield refused all inducements. The Pope was head of Christendom without rival or colleague, he asserted. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on the 1st July, 1616. He was aged 26. The youngest victim of this persecution that I can find was a youth of nineteen called James Bird. He refused the Oath, and was butchered in 1593. They died for their refusal to repeat a few dozen words which millions of others had repeated without hesitation, and which hundreds of thousands had repeated without believing. They died for what many, then and since, would call a trifle. To call their deaths suicide, however, would show not merely a gross lack of principle, but also a defective imagination. The Roman Church has canonised or beatified each of them.
Towards the end of the sixth century, there was a Bishop Salvius of Albi in France. During that century, the Mediterranian world had been swept by a wave of the most tremendous epidemics. At Constantinople, on the first appearance of the plague, in the year 542, the historian Procopius records that ten thousand people a day had died throughout the four summer months.52 All order had for a while collapsed, as the normal bonds of one person to another were severed by fear. The sick were left to die untended. The healthy threw themselves into a round of orgies and rioting. Even outside the towns, whole regions became deserted, so that the crops rotted in the fields, and the cows went unmilked. At the first sign of plague in Albi, the usual panic occurred. People fled, leaving the sick behind. Salvius stayed with them. Whether by ordinary nursing or miracle, he kept the death rate below the level of catastrophe; and the epidemic abated. But he was one of its last victims.
His example is one chosen at random. There have been countless others, before and since. I think of the Belgian missionary, Joseph de Veuster, sent at his own request in 1873 to a leper colony in the Hawaiian Islands. He caught the disease himself, and died, still tending the sick, in 1889. A man who runs into a burning house to save a child is rightly thought brave. There are not words to describe someone who voluntarily and with premeditation risks life or health in the service of the infectious sick. Salvius was canonised. De Veuster is now called `Venerable’.
But not every life-shortening act has been approved. There was in Africa once an heretical sect known as the Donatist Circumcelliones. Its members had conceived such a hatred of life and desire for martyrdom, that, driven by joyous frenzies, they would sometimes leap in great numbers from high cliffs, so that the rocks below were splashed red with their blood. Sometimes, they would stop travellers on the roads, and oblige them to inflict a killing blow, by the promise of a reward if they consented, and the threat of murder if they refused. This was accounted suicide.
There was another sect of heretics, this one in France, called the Albigenses. Many of these also wanted martyrdom. Their methods of seeking it – at least, before the Papacy took action against them – was rather more subtle. If ill, they would accelerate or provoke death, by fasting and occasionally by bleeding. These practices were accounted suicide.
The clear distinguishing principle in these instances is primary intention. In the first two, death was an effect of voluntary action. It was, however, a secondary consequence, a byproduct of something done with an entirely different main end in view. The recusants probably had no great wish to go through an agonising death. But, faced with this or apostasy from what they believed was absolutely true and right, they resolutely chose the lesser of evils. No more can it be thought that Salvius and De Veuster were seeking death directly. In the second two instances, it was sought directly – not, perhaps, as an end in itself, as the self- overdosing of some jilted shorthand typist of our own day might be presumed; but it was still sought for no predominating earthly reason. If I put a gun to my head, or lie in a hot bath and open a vein, my primary intention, in all probability, is self- destruction. If I light a cigarette, it is to absorb nicotine into my body. The one act is to end life. The other, in my own estimation, is to enhance it. If one effect of the second is to bring my death forward in some unknowable degree, this is not suicide. If I could somehow know that, by lighting up, I should be `spending’ a given number of minutes, it would still not be suicide. If I had it on the highest medical authority that one cigarette would kill me after five minutes, it would, again, still not be suicide. The same distinguishing principle applies as above. There may be no comparison between my own seeking of pleasure at inordinate cost, and the laying down by someone else of his life for the sake of others or in praising or holding fast to his God. But the sin involved here would be that of addiction – most definitely not of suicide. But this is an unlikely situation. In normal circumstances, the seeking of pleasure will be at an uncertain and perhaps long delayed price.
In truth, the best analogy of smoking is not suicide, but working at a dangerous occupation. Take coal miners, for example. They notoriously place themselves in danger. Working at the coal face, they risk burial alive by collapsing tunnels; they risk being burned to death or suffocated by poisonous gasses. Even without these exceptional events, the environment of a coal mine is unhealthy. The air is loaded with silicious dust. Breathing it often leads to pneumoconiosis, a fatal lung disease. Crawling about for long periods places unnatural strain on the knee joints, causing arthritis. The wages offered for coal mining reflect these dangers. The work is for the most part unskilled manual labour. It requires endurance and some strength, but little in the way of initiative. In as much, then, as the wages offered are higher than those paid for labour of the same general grade on the surface, they incorporate a special premium for risk. They are an incentive for a man to put his life or long- term health in danger.
Now, whatever may be the state of affairs in other parts of the world, in this country, no one is compelled to take up any specific occupation. If a man decides to accept a coal miner’s wages, rather than those of a shelf-stacker or static security guard, or of whatever other menial occupation might be open to him, he does so of his own volition. Perhaps his father and elder brothers were miners before him. Leaving aside any sentimental talk of tradition, the real meaning of this is that he will have had an excellent chance of learning the dangers of the job. Perhaps he is married with children. If so, he might have done well considering how he was to fill these extra mouths before bringing them into the world. And even the worst paid job nowadays keeps a family from starving; and the Department of Social Security is often amazingly generous with the taxpayers’ money. Anyone who goes down a coal mine does so either because he is stupid, or because he prefers the present satisfactions that the extra money can buy to his continued health in the future. If he goes down for the money, the only difference between him and a smoker is that the smoker combines his pleasure and danger in a single act; and he keeps them distinct. I have listened to much invective against the miners. But I have never heard them called sinners by mere virtue of their occupation. Yet, if to smoke be a sin on the grounds of its unnaturalness, so equally must digging coal be one.
XIII Smoking, Sin and Toleration
This is my answer to the first part of our main question, then – that smoking, in whatever light we care to regard it, is just not sinful. Even, however, if it were – even if it were shown as plainly against Scripture and nature as throat cutting, and the smoker unquestionably doomed to the lake of black fire – my answer to the second part of that main question would remain unaltered. Ambrose and many of the Church Fathers, together with theologians of nearly every Christian sect since, have asserted that to tolerate sin is to partake of sin. That this is not so, however, is as necessary a consequence of our two minimal assumptions given above as those by which we prove our own existence. To see this, we return to those assumptions; and, from them, we derive two further secondary principles.
The first of these is that the human will is free. Now, there is no reason in itself to doubt that every event is predetermined, and every soul marked out from the beginning of time for salvation or damnation. But, most plainly, it contradicts our first assumption, of a benevolent God. To see this, suppose I were to train a child of mine to love starting fires, to love the act of kindling flame more than anything else in the world. Suppose then I were to hand him a box of matches and lock him into a fuel store. I could, perhaps, blame what remained of him for the ensuing explosion – just as God could damn a murderer, having been knowingly the first cause of the murder, and the murderer himself just the final link in the chain of causation. My determining influence on the child’s actions must be infinitely smaller than that of God on the murderer, yet who would call me a just or loving father, except from fear of offending me? To generalise from this, careless mistakes aside, there is no action whatever we can call sinful where there is no voluntary participation. We laugh at Xerxes, who had the Hellespont scourged for washing his bridge away. Are we to say God is equally childish and arbitrary?
Certainly, taking the will as free brings its own problems. It may save the notion of Divine Benevolence, but only, it seems, by compromising that omniscience which is implicit in the notion of Divine Supremacy. Either God knew, long before He created the universe, that a certain murder would take place, or He did not. If He did know, then all our talk of free will is so much more flatus uocis. As with the child and matches, when I see that something will happen, there is always an element of contingency about its happening. When God, in His omniscience, foresees an event, it becomes inevitable. To say otherwise is to state a contradiction. According to Boethius, this is not a real problem. In his view, God is an atemporal being. We exist in time, and are aware of a past and future. God is outside of this continuum; and He therefore can have no foreknowledge, everything occurring in an immediate, eternal present.53 This is an ingenious solution, and it may possibly be the real one. But, however we choose to justify it, that the will is free we must believe, or we must abandon the concept of God given above. It is a necessary assumption, following on from our first.
The second question we have already touched, in our discussion of suicide. It concerns what facts God takes into account when delivering His Judgment on each soul – actions or intentions? Our own earthly law, though it sometimes tries its best to do otherwise, can, by and large, judge only according to actions, all else being too uncertain to sway the verdict. To the Divine Court, though, nothing is uncertain. If I were to throw coins at a beggar, hoping without success to break his head, the law of the land would have to regard my action as charitable, if suspect. But, to God, my intent to commit murder – even my precise degree of resolve in the matter – would be perfectly clear, and so a cognisable fact in reaching His Verdict. `If we have forgotten the Name of our God, and holden up our hands to any strange God: shall not God search it out? For he knoweth the very secrets of the heart.’54 Hence, we can sin against Divine Law both with our bodies and in our hearts.
Yet, this being said, it seems unreasonable to claim all breaches of that law as being equally serious – a desire to commit genocide, an actual rape, an evil intention bungled and producing only good: all equal grounds for damnation. Go back again to the example of my cutting your throat: if I no more than contemplate the action, I harm only my own prospects of salvation. If I make my intention actual, I also harm another soul, which I may have prevented from excelling in a life of subsequent virtue. To intend is clearly easier than to act; yet, to know myself damned already for the former, what more have I to lose by effecting the latter? The notion is plainly unreasonable, since, so far from deterring, after a very low point, it even encourages sin. Granted, anything is conceivable of God, and there may well be some divine equivalent of the English conspiracy laws. But to suppose this is again an evident contradiction of our first assumption. It seems better to accord putting our sins into an order of gravity, or adopting the Roman division of them into venial and mortal. Or we might instead conceive each to carry a given number of points, a sufficient number earned resulting in one’s damnation. There can be no certainty on details here, but there can be little dispute whether actual sins are not judged more severely than potential ones.
So we take it that man is a creature capable of freely choosing good or evil, and is judged on how he chooses. Now, in the wild, isolated from others, our opportunities for choosing either are at best limited. Without others round us, our actions must be morally neutral for the most part, only those affecting ourselves and God counting – among these being suicide, masturbation, blasphemy, and the like. Even those sins we could commit in our hearts would be limited by our ignorance of what sins there were to commit. However, it being part of our nature to live in society, this problem seldom faces us. Living in close proximity to others, we find fresh opportunities with each new day for shining in God’s eyes, or not. And, in so far as our contact with others increases, so increase our opportunities; and, in so far as it is diminished, so our opportunities are diminished. Which brings us to the logical outcome of our two assumptions. God’s full sanction is reserved for those societies alone of which the members can in the greatest degree possible choose good or evil for themselves: any other is a frustration of His Plan.
This outcome stated, we are able to go on and, in descending order of abstraction, derive its practical consequences. We first consider the proper role of government. Now, it does, by its very nature, involve coercion. It exists only by levying taxes, which are had from those who might well have used the money otherwise, to secure grace or damnation. It acts only by interfering with what people do, compelling some things, forbidding others. It is inevitably a hindrance to the free choice of good or evil by its subjects. But, while evidently God abhors the regulating of human action for its own sake, equally He cannot approve the possession of more freedom than is compatible with its own survival. Without some government – perhaps only protecting life and property – such chaos might result that either society would dissolve, or it would fall into the hands of some tyrant, who might promise stability, but deliver somewhat more. If this were so, there would be a Christian case for government. And since both the common sense of mankind and the overwhelming balance of the philosophers believe it so, reasoning as theologians, we may provisionally accept that government must exist. Moreover, letting it keep the internal peace, only a fool would deny it the means of foreign defence. Of course, the mode and degree appropriate to each nation differs, and no one kind is suitable to all. But it must be said that spending on armaments may never without sin be greater than is needed for bare defence against aggression. England needs a great navy, and in the modern world, a great air force. Unhappily, we must also have a nuclear deterrent of sorts. But whether we need an army of occupation or defence constantly in Germany seems quite another matter – as is whether we need bases in Cyprus and Hong Kong. In deciding, we must think as strategists and not as theologians; though we require no great depth of learning to see from our own past that having so many distant commitments is to cast a net for troubles.
We come now to the matter of personal conduct, with particular reference to smoking. It ought to be clear from what has already been said that the Christian should stand for the absolute realisable maximum of individual freedom. The only justification of State interference, apart from the protection of others, is the avoidance of collapse into chaos or tyranny. Whether or not smoking might be a threat to others is, as I said at the beginning, a matter which falls outside the scope of this present study. But, as it affects the soul of the smoker, there is no case for control. To be sure, increasing taxes on tobacco products would, in at least some measure, diminish consumption of them. Restricting advertising, it is sometimes argued, might have the same effect. Such measures might well cause many of those inclined to smoking either to think again, or not be reminded so forcibly or often of their inclination. Desiring to sin – always, of course, assuming the sinfulness of smoking – yet not actively sinning, they might avoid some of the pain decreed by God as their punishment. But holding people from evil holds them also from good. No longer are they allowed to confront their sinful longings for cigarettes, to fight them, and overcome them by act of will and piety alone, so gaining salvation. Directed with skill and effort, the law might vastly diminish smoking; but the resulting virtue would like that of a chaste eunuch – derived not from conquest of temptation, but from its absence. Without any overriding excuse of the public order, for any government to try encouraging or prohibiting various kinds of private conduct, is to frustrate the whole purpose of society – which is to be the stage on which we act under the watchful eye of God.55
XIV The Evil of Moral Authoritarianism
Moral authoritarianism is far worse than any amount of tobacco product advertising. The authoritarian will be held responsible for the damnation of any souls on account of his having denied their right to choose good of their own accord, desire to sin overcome. The advertiser and his accomplices will find the path to Heaven much smoother. By offering temptation, they provoke choice. Therefore, they may cause the salvation of many who would otherwise have let themselves fall into Hell for lack of positive virtue.
Considered only in themselves, restrictions on smoking are bad. In this country, they are bad also on account of the means by which they have largely been imposed. Most people, if asked what it is that distinguishes a free society from tyranny, will perhaps think first of democracy. As modes of government go, this is a very fine one. But it is not the fundamental point of difference. Freedom relies above all else on the concept of what some call bourgeois legality and others the rule of law. Everyone who is not completely besotted by its power, knows that the State is a frighteningly dangerous institution. It may be a very necessary one. Tolerating its existence may be the only means available to us of seeing off or keeping at bay those other smaller dangers which threaten us. But it is useful only so far as it is kept within close restraints. In all dealings with its subjects, it must be forced to act in strict accordance with certain general rules of conduct, clearly stated in advance. These must apply equally to all citizens. Any dispute on either side as to their meaning must be resolved before independent and impartial courts of law. Where restrictions on smoking are concerned, this principle has been repeatedly flouted.
Twenty years ago, the Wilson Government decided that something had to be done about smoking. The first undeniable correlations with disease were being announced; and a government which interfered in everything else saw no principled objection to interfering with the tobacco industry. But it had no time for making laws. In the first place, the Parliamentary timetable was already full to overflowing. Making laws on one thing meant not making laws on something else. In the second, there was no consensus of opinion, either in the country as a whole, or, at that time, in the Labour Party, for anti-smoking legislation not to be time-wastingly controversial. And so, it resorted to threats. Kenneth Robinson, the Minister of Health, proudly recalls how he called the representatives of the leading companies to discussions with him, and bullied them into a “voluntary agreement”. “There was always a slight hint that the government would legislate” he says, “a hint of blackmail in the background. I used it progressively as the talks went on and on. I used to throw up my hands and say, `Gentlemen, if you can’t agree, you leave me no alternative’.”56 From then until now, this has been the chosen method of restricting the promotion of tobacco products.
To say “Do as I tell you, or I will consider making a law to compel you” is the same as saying “Do as I tell you”. In constitutional theory, no State official in this country has any more authority than is prescribed by law; and disputes over the use of that authority are referable if not to the normal courts of law, then certainly to various administrative tribunals which usually follow a legalistic procedure. Ministerial “blackmail” is a perfect means of escaping these burdensome restraints. On paper, they remain as formidable as ever they were. In reality, the principles of judicial review become as vital to the governing of this country as the principles of heraldry. The way is opened to omnipotent government, and the destruction of freedom.
Before moving on to a general conclusion, there are two clarifications needed, for the avoidance of misunderstanding. First, to say that people should be left to go to Heaven or Hell by whatever means they see fit is not to show any lack of concern for them. Just as no libertarian wishes to see them smoking themselves into illness or an early grave, so no Christian can fail to worry about what may lie in wait for them beyond the grave. That in neither instance is coercion the required answer is no reason to stop caring. In both, the degree of caring is limited only by the requirement that we respect the autonomy of others, and by the normal rules of good taste. To see this, imagine that I, believing in the dangers – whatever these might be – of smoking, were confronted by a smoker. No one likes being pestered by proselytising strangers, as anyone who has been stopped in Central London by Moonies or Iranian refugees will readily admit. The chances of someone’s being more than annoyed by such an intrusion are so generally low that it would hardly be worth the effort of beginning a lecture on the evils of tobacco. A total stranger, then, I would leave alone, other than, perhaps, to ask him to put his cigarette out if we were in an enclosed space, or whether he minded my opening a window to disperse the smoke. Someone I knew rather better I might, with sniffs and sour looks, let know what I felt. With a closer friend I might feel rather bolder. With a very close friend or relation – especially one actually suffering from what I had reason to believe an illness caused or worsened by smoking – there would be no restraint. I might beg him to put the cigarette out. I might try shaming him to put it out. I might force on his attention the various costs of smoking. I would do everything short of snatching the cigarette out of his mouth and putting it out myself. There is no contradiction between concern for others and respect for them, so long as each feeling is kept within its proper bounds.
Second, just because a law is unnecessary, or harmful, is not normally sufficient reason for ostentatiously breaking it – nor for trying to bring down whatever government may have imposed it. Every government in history has made or enforced some laws which might be said to have failed the test set for them above. Our own statute book is already blemished. Effective measures to curb smoking would be a scandalous blemish on it. They would be arguably superfluous to the protection of others. In theological terms, they would be evil. Nor, believing them improper beyond all common doubt, would there be any strict obligation to obey such commands. We should be free in conscience to ignore them as suited our private pleasure.57 But to say aloud to everyone that a bad law may rightly be broken is something else entirely. To make a cult of civil disobedience – as a whole section of our political class appears to have done – is often only slightly less than preaching rebellion. It opens the way to a contempt of law in general, and by those least able to tell what is bad from what merely inconvenient. This is not to condemn all resistance – certainly not in cases of open tyranny. But, recalling what its effects most usually are, it remains that, whatever their deeds or policy, active resistance to the authorities should normally be a last resort. This is obviously true in England, where, despite a century of increasing misgovernment, we can still call our laws and institutions on the whole sound, and can still agree to accept specific imperfections pending their reform. It applies with equal force, however, in the case of foreign countries. For, on the principle stated and explained above, in this less than perfect world to claim the Divine Sanction, a society need only enjoy the greatest degree of freedom possible, whatever more of it could be thought desirable. And so, to any reasonable man who may consider the overthrow of a bad government, the proper question is not – as the modern intellectual might occasionally pause to ask – whether he really will be assaulting something unspeakably evil, but to what extent his acting can result in any better state of affairs.58
This, then, is what can be said about smoking. It is not an addiction destructive of will and reason. It may or may not even have certain short-term therapeutic merits. In so far as it is otherwise an unnatural act, it is no worse than coal mining. On Christian grounds, there is nothing to be said against it. It is an indifferent activity. On the matter of legislative control, those Christian advocates who are not merely putting a religious gloss on their secular views are guilty of a fundamental misconception – that it is the duty of government to make people good. It is the duty of government to do no such thing. It is instead to maintain an orderly environment in which we are able to do such good as we may choose of our own free will. If a Christian has any duty to become involved in politics, the politics appropriate to his faith are those of what used to be called liberalism, and which are today found in diluted form in the Conservative Party. If he has any duty to take a position on smoking, that position is surely one strongly opposed to any restrictions which have not as their end the protection of others. John Stuart Mill was not a Christian, but his words on liberty, properly construed, are fully in accord with Christianity. Though subject ultimately to God, where secular relationships are concerned, “[o]ver himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.
1.M. A. Plant, Drugs in Perspective, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 66.
2.M. A. H. Russell in 1971, quoted in Heather Ashton and Rob Stepney, Smoking: Psychology and Pharmacology, Tavistock Publications, London, 1983, p. 140.
3.John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, `Everyman’ Edition, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1977, p. 73.
4.The Times, London 3rd April 1986.
5.The Times, London, 12th July 1986.
6.Quoted in Ashton and Stepney, op. cit., p. 144.
7.The Times, London. 27th January 1986.
8.Edward Norman, Christianity and the World Order (being the BBC Reith Lectures for 1978), Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 2. I do not, in this essay, adopt Dr Norman’s position, which is that there is no political ideology inherent in the doctrines of Christianity. But I do admire the force and clarity with which he exposes the pretensions of today’s political clerics.
9.See Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-87), `Everyman’ Edition, J. M. Dent and Sons, London, 1962, vol. 3, p. 119 (or, in any edition, the first paragraph of chapter XXVII).
10. Warning made in 1971 by the Royal College of Physicians; quoted Whitaker, op. cit., p. 147.
11. Mark, 9:44 (repeated 9:46).
12. Matt., 8:20.
13. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, quoted in Ayn Rand et al ., Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, New American Library, New York, 1967, p. 323 (her italics).
14. Lev., 20:15.
15. Aristotle, Metaphysics I, 1, and Posterior Analytics II, 15, et passim.
16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Lib. I, cap. iii. All translations from this work are my own. Those from the Summa Theologi‘ are either compared with those of the Dominican Fathers or are followed entirely. As for this rationalist claim, it is still formally upheld by the Roman Catholic Church. See H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 1806: “If anyone shall deny that the one and true God our creator and Lord can be known through the creation by the natural light of human reason let him be anathema.”
17. For the clearest and longest development of Rand’s epistemology, see David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Perception , Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
18. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Book I, Part III, section xii.
19. Rene Descartes – Discours sur la Methode, part four. See also Augustine – De Ciuitate Dei, Lib. XII, c. 26: Si fallor sum.
20. Matt., 6:27.
21. Anselm, Proslogion, cap. 1.
22. From the First of the 39 Articles of Religion to which all Anglicans are supposed to assent.
23. Rom., 13:9.
24. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, I-II, 94, 2. The embedded quotation, Quæ natura omnia animalia docuit, is unidentified in my text.
25. Quoted in William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1911, vol. 2, p. 112.
27. Thomas Babbington Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James II (1848-61), `Everyman’ Edition, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1910, vol. 1, p. 129 (or, in other editions, the eleventh paragraph of chapter II).
28. Leslie Stephen (the novelist’s father), quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, Victorian Minds, Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1968, p. 310.
29. “This voluntary martyrdom [of Simeon Stylites] must have gradually destroyed the sensibility both of the mind and body; nor can it be presumed that the fanatics who torment themselves are susceptible of any lively affection for the rest of mankind. A cruel, unfeeling temper has distinguished the monks of every age and country: their stern indifference, which is seldom mollified by personal friendship, is inflamed by religious hatred; and their merciless zeal has strenuously administered the holy office of the Inquisition”, Gibbon, op. cit., vol. 4 [chapter XXXVII], p. 18.
30. See, for a very notorious instance of this, Eusebius, History of the Church, Book V, c. 8. When about twenty years old, Origen of Alexandria, an enthusiast from his earliest boyhood, considered the text of Matthew, 19:12 – “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” His mind made up, he immediately castrated himself. He realised only some while later that his exegesis had been too literal. His story can be taken as illustrating more than one moral.
31. Song of Solomon, 1:2.
32. Luke, 22:15.
33. Prov., 23:20-21.
34. I Cor., 6:10.
35. M. A. H. Russell in 1976, quoted in Ashton and Stepney, op. cit., p. 53.
36. M. A. H. Russell in 1977, quoted ibid., p. 140.
37. M. A. H. Russell in 1971, quoted ibid.
38. M. A. H. Russell in 1977, quoted ibid.
39. For a fuller discussion of this point (of which my own is very largely an abridgement), see Ashton and Stepney, op. cit., pp. 58-60.
40. M. A. H. Russell in 1980, quoted in Ashton and Stepney, op. cit., p. 141.
41. Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1980, quoted ibid .
42. Whitaker, op. cit., p. 153.
43. Whitaker, op. cit., p. 146.
44. See his article, “Lighting up for Liberty”, in The Times , London, 3rd August 1987.
45. See her article of that title in The Guardian, London and Manchester, 25th May 1981.
46. See his article, “A Whiff of Consolation for the Smoker”, in The Daily Telegraph, London, 30th October 1981.
47. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, I-II, 30, 4.
48. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Lib. III, cap. cxxii. His main topic of discussion here is the interesting, and perhaps important, issue of whether fornication and sodomy involve an unnatural emission of sperm, and so hinder procreation.
49. Quoted, Ashton and Stepney, op. cit., p. 4.
50. On this point, see Augustine, op. cit., Lib. I, cap. 19.
51. For a most inspiring example of Divine benevolence in this respect, see the Book of Job.
52. Procopius, De Bello Persico, Lib. XXIII, cap. 1. See also J. N. Biraben and J. le Goff, “La Peste dans le Haut Moyen Age”, in Annales: Economies, Soci‚t‚s, Civilisations, 24 (1969), pp. 1484-1510.
53. Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiæ, Lib. V, cap. 90-105.
54. Ps., 44:21.
55. “Human law does not prohibit every vice from which virtuous men abstain, but only the graver vices … [which] … unless prohibited would make it impossible for human society to endure”, Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, I-II, 96, 2. In isolation, this might be taken as stark dissent from the position of Ambrose. In many ways, indeed, Aquinas deserves a high place in the history of libertarian thought. But, in spite of this, he was also a Catholic theologian of the thirteenth century; and, though he stood firmly against that insane bigotry which tears societies apart, he did not oppose intolerance in itself. On this point, see ibid., II-II, 8 & 10.
56. Narrated in Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco, Peter Taylor, The Bodley Head, London, 1984, p. 83.
57. This is no revolutionary assertion of rights. Without going through the constitutional documents of British and American history, I turn again to Aquinas: “Laws may for two reasons be unjust. First, they may be contrary to the good of mankind … either with regard to their end – as when a ruler imposes laws which are burdensome and designed not for the common good, but his own rapacity or vanity – or with regard to their maker – if, for example, he should go beyond his proper powers – or with regard to their form, if, though intended for the common good, their burdens should be inequitably distributed. Such laws come closer to violence than to true law … They do not, therefore, oblige in conscience, except perhaps for the avoidance of scandal or disorder”, Summa Theologiæ, I-II, 96, 4.
58. “The overthrow of such governments is not strictly sedition, unless perhaps when accompanied by such disorder that the community suffers greater harm than from the tyrannical government”, ibid., II-II, 42, 2.
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