Partially in response to ObeseWhale's editorial and partially for my own understanding, I'd like to pose a question to the K5 audience. I am a smoker. I've heard and know about the negatives that are associated with smoking: yellowed teeth, shortness of breath, constant smell of cigarette smoke, increased risk of lung and throat cancer, the whole selection of problems that smoking cigarettes brings about. I've also quit smoking before. It's not an impossible process; the first three or four days are a nervous, edgy hell, but after that the addiction begins to fade and then vanish. Despite all this, I still smoke. Why? Because I enjoy it. I love the sound of the match as it catches the end of the cigarette, the feel of the smoke, the social atmosphere that surrounds smoking, the vaguely socialist way in which cigarettes are bummed and borrowed. I may not enjoy it as much when I'm forty-five and can't climb two flights of stairs, but for now, I'm comfortable with my decision to smoke. I respect those who don't agree with me (I won't smoke if someone is bothered by it nor do I litter the ground with my butts), but smoking is my decision for which I am responsible (I'm not trying to setup smokers as some persecuted minority in need of protection nor as some culture elite). As I am of legal age to smoke, I feel confident in asserting that if I want to smoke, I have the right to do so.
To digress for a moment, it seems to me that a large portion of K5 readers would to some degree agree with the following quote from Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you say, but I will, to the death, defend your right to say it." What gives speech value, in Voltaire's eyes, is not the content of that speech, but that it is speech itself. Regardless of the truth, accuracy, or usefulness of your speech, you have a right to it. Although a smaller selection of readers may agree with this, I doesn't seem to be too far of a stretch to reword Voltaire as follows: "I may not agree with what you do, but I will, to the death, defend your right to do it." In this case, it is no longer our speech that is self-justifying, but our actions. Our very desire to do something makes it acceptable. My desire to smoke needs no further explanation; I can suck tar, nicotine, and four thousand odd chemicals into my body as long as I wish to do so.
Up to this point, this has been a relatively standard discussion of liberty. Insofar as man is human, he has the right to self-efficacy. What puzzles me, however, are the sort of comments that ObeseWhale makes about her classmates: "The rich, affluent students flock to the eastern hallways of the school to discuss among themselves their latest problems, the trials and tribulations of their lives, who Jenny's latest boyfriend is, the regular garbage of American social discourse." She then follows this up with a scathing judgment: "The vast majority of what goes through their minds is irrelevant, unimportant, and vastly useless." That may be true, but does it give ObeseWhale any basis from which to condemn her fellow students? If all men have the right to self-efficacy, aren't her classmates perfectly able to discuss and do as they please?
It seems to me that if you accept every man's right to do as he pleases for no more reason than it please him, you create a liberated society but also introduce a degree of moral relativism. Following the analogy to speech, your actions are justified simply because you perform them. There is no scale of utility or societal benefit applied when judging the acceptability of actions or speech; every man has a right to his own. ObeseWhale tells us: "I'll do whatever I can to bring my mind to more `important' matters." Even with the self-deprecating quotes, how is such a judgment possible? ObeseWhale is welcome to turn her mind to whatever she pleases, but she has no moral ground for condemning what others choose to think or do.
Yet it is a common feeling (and one I know well) that we have the right to judge and make decisions about the value of speech, thought, and action. While you may feel this is a plea for tolerance, here's the catch: I don't believe that feeling is wrong. Whether it is utilitarianism, aesthetic appeal, or intelligence, we all have standards upon which we judge. The problem, however, is that many of us also espouse ideals of liberty theoretically based on self-efficacy and practically based on democracy, but want nothing to do with the relativism that accompanies such ideas. In the end, it seems that ObeseWhale is not advocating democracy or a change in democracy, but rather an aristocracy. We judge the value of books, movies, and paintings; why not judge the value of people and allow the best to lead? If not, how do we reconcile the desire for the right to self-efficacy with the desire to judge?