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Consumer ethics in Thank you for smoking

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Recently I came upon this paper ,by Stacy Thompson, called Consumer ethics in thank you for smoking. The subject matter of this piece is Nick Naylor, the protagonist in Thank you for smoking and the goal is to find out whether Nick acted ethically or not in the movie. To determine that, Nick's actions are judged against moral guidelines laid down by great philosophers such as Aristotle and Kierkegaard. The paper itself is very well written and if you haven't already you should read it. But there were a few things I found a bit off and so I decided to an analysis myself, taking Stacy's work as the base.

Stacy's analysis begins with Nick's response "If he wants to smoke . . . I’ll buy him his first pack" to senator Finistirre's question "When your son turns 18, will you let him smoke if he wants to?" The author claims that Nick's response was a bluff. That his son's freedom is seemingly preserved only after he can withstand years of his father's badgering. In other words what he's saying is that Nick's son never really had a choice.

During the same scene ,that the author is talking about, Nick maintained that it is the duty of every parent to educate their children about perils of smoking. Pasting a skull and bones label on a cigarette packet is not going to help any one. He goes on to argue that if the committee thinks that cigarette smoking is evil for causing deaths why not go ahead and put a skull and bones label on cars which cause great number of deaths due to reckless driving. Or even on cheese packaging which cause death due to high cholesterol levels, choking the arteries.

Second Nick advocated a healthy skepticism even among children who were not yet developed in their critical reasoning abilities. During his presentation in Joey's school Nick more or less asked the children to not trust their parents on the perils of smoking and they that should try themselves to find out if smoking does indeed kill. He compares smoking to a harmless exercise like eating chocolates. Would you stop eating chocolates just because someone told you so?

These two statements by Nick are contradictory to one another. On one hand he wants to inculcate a feeling of independant thinking in children by asking them to not take anybody's word at face value and form their own opinions. On the other hand Nick wants the parents to educate their children about perils of smoking, making their job difficult as a bunch of strong headed "independent thinking" children are hard to reason with and not everyone possesses Nick's gift with the words. Even if they do it's not like teenagers are going to listen to them. Was Nick a hypocrite?

Maybe. What we need to keep in mind that during his presentation at the school Nick's objective was to to tell the students what he does for a living. Nick makes a living by talking. What he did at the school was a demonstration of what he does in real life. He talks people into forming an own opinion. His agenda was not to turn a bunch of 10 year olds into chain smokers but just to give them an idea of what it is to be like him in real life. Which was the whole point of that meeting. But words do have a power. Once a rebellious seed is planted it is hard to quell the surge of ideas that follow. I concede that Nick's behaviour was irresponsible and cocky but I'm not yet ready to believe that he was a hypocrite.

Coming back to Stacy's paper he argues that what Nick promotes is not virtuous according to Aristotle's ethics because smoking is an excess and already away from the temperate mean. The reasoning being just like there can't be right amount of adultery, any amount is already an excess, so too there can't be a right amount of smoking. I must admit that the argument is pretty convincing but I feel that it is incomplete. I don't think it's fair to judge a person just on one aspect of ethics and ignore everything else. Granted that the temperate mean is the deciding factor in all of Aristotle's virtues but if you are going to evaluate a person then either evaluate him against all the virtues or none at all. Apparently Nick fails at controlling his bodily pleasures but what about other morals. How does he do at them? Let's see:-

Bravery: The mean between rashness and cowardice

Nick shows many signs of bravery throughout the movie. Going to the live TV show to speak for the tobacco organization in the presence of a cancer inflicted teenager,clearly knowing that he was hated by one and all. Going to Marlboro man's house and offering him money even though he had a gun pointed to his head. And ultimately facing senator Finistirre in a committee hearing when he was fired from his company and had absolutely no reason to be there except for his beliefs.

Nick stood for the freedom of choice. He believed in it and was willing to be demolished in public for his beliefs. Initially it may be argued that he was doing it just for the sake of his job. But it became clear towards the end that his guiding light was joey,his son. To whom he was a hero. Someone who has a point of view, however unpopular, and who is not unwilling to stand by it in the time of difficulty. Nick was afraid of disappointing his son but he was not perturbed at the prospect of being ridiculed and even have his reputation destroyed publicly if it meant he became the ideal that Joey imagined him to be. His actions were consistent throughout. He stuck to his guns. +1 to Nick

Temperance - mean with regard to bodily pleasures

Nick enjoyed good food. Had good taste in movies. Indulged in wine and company of women. Wore good clothes. He knew how to take care of himself. On the other hand he was addicted to smoking and grew restless when he was out of cigarettes. 0

[The movie does not give us a chance to evaluate Nick on the virtues of generosity,munificence and magnanimity. So we'll skip these.]

Honor:The right ambition

Nick worked for a tobacco firm. He had a boss just like everyone else. But he displayed signs of ambition by trying to impress the last great man of tobacco. One of the founding fathers of his firm. He wanted to rise up to the big league. +1

Good temper: Mean with respect to anger

Nick displayed good temper throughout the movie. He was often cast into heated debates but he never lost his composure and always argued with reason. He also displayed annoyance when his boss tried to steal his ideas and sell them as his own to the Captain.he knew how to be angry in the right amount. +1

Friendliness

Nick was a friendly person. He had no trouble forming a connection with people whom he barely knew. It took 2 minutes for him to start laughing and smiling with Heather. Captain started liking Nick 2 seconds after started they talking. He had no trouble striking up conversations with people on a plane. Even though the nature of his job put him in many controversial situations he managed to put up with it and retain his ability to gel with people.

He had few friends just 2 but he was close with them and they cared for each other. +1

Truthfulness

Nick's job as he said himself required a bit of moral flexibility. He knew how to bend the facts and often boasted and exaggerated the reality to get what he wanted. -1

Wit

Knew how to speak and speak well. Always spoke the right amount of words. No more, no less. Was never caught off guard even during the most difficult of situations. Used humor and sarcasm effectively to dodge hard questions and managed to keep his cool about him at all times. +1

Justice

Nick often bent the rules to suit his purpose. He only cared about achieving his goals at all costs. Justice was not one of his virtues. -1

On the Aristotle's scale Nick scores 4 out of 8 virtues we could evaluate. Just like most people he had flaws. But dismissing all of his actions as amoral is not right. While his promotion of free will in choosing to smoke might gain a point in Aristotle's bravery scale it looses a point in the temperance scale. While his banter and wit may give him points in friendliness and wittiness he looses points in justice and Truthfulness. So Aristotle's ethics is not really a good measure to determine whether Nick's action were moral or amoral as we only have an unfinished picture of what Nick as a person was.

"But according to Aristotle, justice is the virtue which should drive the actions of people. And laws should be enacted to train the desires and passions of men. In that case what is wrong with pasting a skull and bones label on cigarette packs? "

It's hypocritical that's what wrong. It should be noted that smoking is not being banned. Only that there is an intention to make it unappealing. To counteract all the glamour that is associated with smoking of cigarettes. It's more like shrugging of the responsibility than the education of the people.

What they are effectively saying is "Look here fellows at this pack of cigarette. You see this horrendous sticker in the middle? It indicates that smoking these things is dangerous for you. You are free to buy this of course, we won't be stopping you, but we have warned you and our job is done."

"Oh so what you are saying is that it's okay for these tobacco companies to fund hot movie stars to smoke on the big screen but not for government to paste a warning label on the cigarette pack?"

I know it's a vicious circle. People think smoking is cool because it's being endorsed by good looking people in the movies. Therefore they smoke too. Since smoking is becoming a mass activity, movies that cater to masses show an ordinary teenager smoking because that's what an ordinary teenager does (or wants to do) these days. Now smoking is not only a sign of Independence and rebellion but also a sign of conformity and belonging.A peer pressure of sorts where people smoke because all of their friends smoke.

"You didn't answer the question"

I know. It's hard to answer. That is what makes Thank you for smoking such a thoughtful movie. Senator finistree is right in trying to make smoking uncool to reverse the years of glamorization by the entertainment industry. And Nick is not entirely wrong in saying that people should take responsibility of their actions and not shift the blame on everything else. Today it's cigarettes tomorrow it may be something else.

Television is addictive and damaging to the mental health and critical thinking of an individual. And yet we've never heard about any warning before a show that says "Watching television makes you dumb. Better go and read a book than waste time here." Nor do people like Senator Finistirre feel any remorse in forcing their opinions down the people's throat by means of TV shows, speeches and advertisement. Only when something is not going their way like tobacco companies using TV as a medium for promotion of cigarettes do they become indignant and try to change the rules to suit their purpose. In this Nick and Senator Finistirre are not much different at all. They are both playing the game on the opposing sides. No one truly cares about the welfare of the people. They are both trying to win the favour of the masses.

Coming back to Stacy's paper, he has two objectives in mind:-

  1. To determine whether Nick's actions were virtuous or not
  2. To to prove that Nick was not some sort of a tragic hero trying to do the right thing.
He argues that the film tires to warm the audience towards the the decidedly evil character of Nick Naylor.

Stacy rightly finds Nick's action to be amoral. And he rightly proves that Nick was not a tragic hero. But he interpreted the movie wrongly. Thank you for smoking was a satire that meant to portray the duplicitous nature of tobacco firms and the government. Neither of them are doing the right thing. Nick Naylor is no tragic hero. He's the guy with a bachelors in taking names and PHD in kicking ass. The kind of guy who can go to a bar and pick up any girl he wants. On crack.

But he's also a responsible father. He's consistent in his actions. He lives by the principle of giving everyone a choice. A choice to consume in this case. And he defends his stand. He sticks to his guns. He stands by what he believes in and takes responsibility for his actions. He is not a saint but he lives by a principle. That's something.

-Akshat Jiwan Sharma


Come on baby, light my fire