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.