Don’t Smoke ’em Redux

Response to my previous post “Don’t smoke ’em if you got kids” from a comment on FaceBook: “If you can go to a doctor and get an abortion to kill your unborn child, why not be allowed to smoke and expose your child to a little life endangering chemicals. In fact it is legal to go buy a gun and leave it laying around where your child can get to it and shoot itself, so this must be perfectly natural. Power to the parents to be completely irresponsible.”

It is possible that this is an attempt at playing devil’s advocate. But just in case it belies a real objection to my contention that smoking around children minimally amounts to child endangerment, here is my response:

  1. It is a non-sequitur to argue that because abortion is legal that infanticide is or should be allowed as well. I assume that this is an argument by analogy, but I think there are significant difference between the moral status of the zygote, embryo, fetus etc., and the moral status of a child. Regardless of your view on abortion, the analogy is at best weak. Many people, even those generally opposied to abortion, often allow a harm to be done to the unborn in cases were continuing a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, or where a life-saving cancer treatment will result in the termination of a pregnancy. In these types of cases, we may foresee the harm without intending to harm. In the case of parents exposing his or her child to secondhand smoke, the harm is gratuitous. The parent is harming the child for no other reason than they don’t want to be troubled to smoke elsewhere.
  2. The fact that something is the case (e.g., suppose parents aren’t barred by law from leaving loaded guns lying around) does not mean it ought to be the case. So the fact that we don’t prohibit parents from smoking around their children no way implies that it ought to be the case that we don’t prohibit it.
  3. Some states—such as Connecticut—do have laws against the irresponsible storage of firearms around children.
  4. Assuming children are persons deserving of moral respect, then I don’t see how harming them (by exposing them to life endangering chemicals) is any different than harming any other (adult) person.
  5. You admit that smoking is a form of child endangerment, so this would lead me to assume you are ok with child endangerment, or at least believe society shouldn’t try and protect children from the harm perpetrated by parents. Is this really the position one wants to hold? Do we want to say that we should never protect the vulnerable from incompetent individuals? So, for example, should be get rid of the licensing of physicians? Power to the doctors to be incompetent?
  6. “Power to the parents” is an apt description, since we can construe the actions taken by irresponsible parents as a power, but not a right or a privilege. I would argue that what parents do when they smoke is exercise a power, and an illegitimate one at that. The regulation of power is one of the things laws do, and ought to do in the case of parents and smoking.

[Update 2011-12-31]: The quoted Facebook comment was intended by its author to be sarcastic (something I thought might be the case). Unfortunately, I have encountered views in the children’s rights literature that hold very similar views —e.g., Jan Narvson’s view of the moral status of children. Apologies to the properly quoted but improperly interpreted Facebook commentor.


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