Rush, E-Cigarettes and the Niggardly Principle

Rush Limbaugh was enjoying himself hugely yesterday, as he usually does, relating one more way that he has devised to tweak America’s Enemies of Freedom.

The radio talk show king’s topic was electronic cigarettes, those increasingly popular devices that deliver a nicotine jolt while emitting faux “smoke” (it’s only odorless water vapor), all while looking like a real cigarette—the tip even glows red when you puff it. Rush keeps the things handy, he explains, to provide a balm to his nicotine cravings when he is in public places, but even more so, it seems, to annoy anti-smoking zealots. Rush gets a rush when he pulls out the plastic devices and observes reflexive coughs and frowns from those in his vicinity who regard cigarettes as the equivalent of rotting cats.

It is true that the e-cigs look like and are handled like cigarettes, but they just aren’t. Puffing on them isn’t smoking, any more than sucking on a lemon is smoking: there isn’t any smoke, paper, burning or tobacco, to name a few crucial differences. Is Rush Limbaugh’s routine wrong in any way? Is it unethical to “puff” non-cigarettes where real ones are banned?

Clearly not. Cigarettes have been banned in offices, restaurants, airports and other public places because of a policy determination that they are a health nuisance, not because of how they look. E-cigarettes, in contrast are a promising technological development that serve two valid purposes: they assist people who are trying to quit smoking, and they allow smokers to soothe themselves in places where smoking is banned, making them, among other things, a lot easier to get along with. There is no reasonable objection to them.

Nevertheless, the e-cigs will inevitably draw complaints at restaurants. Limbaugh claimed that he recently received complaints from  outdoor restaurant diners who told the management that it was inappropriate for him to use his mechanical coffin nail because children were present, and Rush appeared to be enjoying himself so much that the kids would be enticed into trying the real thing. I agree with Rush: that is going out of one’s way to be aggrieved. So, he said, Limbaugh began “smoking” once again, even though he really didn’t feel like it, taking deep, long, “puffs” as he leaned back in his chair with a satisfied smile, looking at the presumed protestors. He didn’t say whether he also cried out, “Boy, this some great smoke!”

Ethics foul on Rush, I think. The conduct violates the Second Niggardly Principle. This holds, to quote from this site’s Definitions page:

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

In other words, it isn’t nice to upset people when you don’t have to, even if you are well within your rights and their objections are less than rational.  It is impolite, inconsiderate, mean-spirited, and violates the Golden Rule. Corollaries of the Principle might be that such conduct is more unethical when the primary reason one engages in it is to annoy people, and more unethical still when one derives great enjoyment from the annoyance caused.

I conclude this with a some empathy for Rush in this case. The anti-smoking zealots who agitate to get my theater company to ban on-stage smoking, despite an excellent ventilation system in the theater itself that sucks all smoke up and out within seconds, have re-doubled my resolve to include smoking when the period, character or mood demands—that swirling smoke looks sooooo great in the lights!—and the rage I feel at the patrons who loudly cough and scowl the nanosecond a cigarette even appears on stage knows no bounds. I would never put cigarettes in a show where I didn’t think they were important, however, just to aggravate these people.

At least, I don’t think I would.

8 thoughts on “Rush, E-Cigarettes and the Niggardly Principle

  1. More agreement.

    Maybe I should attack something tertiary. Can you re-double your resolve without doubling it? Can humans scowl in a nanosecond? Is it possible that any theater that would put on a play you were a part of be well ventilated? Is picturing you in a one man show (about the ethics of one man shows) in a 35 seat theater in Soho wrong?

    • 1. Good question.
      2.Yes, if they start scowling before they have any reason to do so.
      3. I’m a director, so the question is moot.
      4. No, it’s a good idea. And I’ve written two essays on the ethics of one man shows!

  2. I have secondhand experience with the electronic cigarette. My boss smokes them, and he demonstrated it to me, even blowing the vapor in my face (without asking, but once I realized it wasn’t smoke, and had no odor, I was fine). If people start coughing when that one appears, they’re faking, or it’s psychosomatic.

  3. I heard the broadcast you’re referring to, and I think I disagree with your assessment that Rush is violating the Second Niggardly Principle(TM).

    I think the distinction is that he is not simply using the e-cig in order to annoy people. He is, the way I heard it, using the e-cig to defy those who (and we’re talking about individuals here, not faceless groups or organizations) are deliberately trying to take away his freedoms, even though he is not violating any law or in-house rule, even though he is demonstrably not affecting them in a negative way, and even after he has already partially given in by not smoking real tobacco. The fact that he enjoys doing it makes it sound like he’s just trying to be a jerk, but the full story doesn’t bear that out.

    You say “Ethics foul on Rush, I think.” Perhaps this is the reason you’re not sure: there is a purpose to it besides being a jerk. I’ll admit that it probably strays into the territory of the “Dark Golden Rule”, but when a self-identified conservative stands up for preserving individual liberty, that is (IMO) actually an ethical thing for him to do.


    • Good argument. I do sympathize with Rush. I do think doing something just to show you can is a slippery slope—being a jerk, for example, is one’s right, but people wanting you not to be one shouldn’t make you more of a jerk. I’m troubled by it…it’s irritating someone just for the fun of it. The freedom aspect seems like a cover to me…especially as Rush tells it.

      • Well, again, I think there’s a distinction. If he were going around doing this JUST for the fun of it, then I’d agree 100%. But the impression I was left with after hearing the story was that he only does that when “provoked.” Like I wrote above, the targets of his tweaking were not random strangers–they were the particular individuals who complained EVEN AFTER they were informed that he wasn’t really smoking any tobacco. (If you recall, he described how he stops using the e-cig for a short while for the express purpose of scoping out who the complainer(s) were by gauging the reactions of those around him after he stops and again after he starts up again.)

        And to keep it in perspective, this is all a result of his NOT smoking a cigarette (or cigar) in a place where it’s prohibited: voluntarily obeying both the letter and spirit of the law . The people complaining about THAT are the ones being jerks.


  4. Another way to argue the point:

    The Second Niggardly Principle(TM) states:
    “…but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, ….”

    You then write:
    “There is no reasonable objection to them.”
    and later:
    “I agree with Rush: that is going out of one’s way to be aggrieved.”

    I would argue that the first quote causes the “aggrieved” to fail the “well-established impulses of human nature” clause and that the second quote causes them to fail the “not malicious” clause. Thus, the SNP(TM) does not apply.

    I rest my case, Your Honor.


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