Ethics lessons from Philip Morris

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Noticed this sign in the window of a drug store today.

Aside from the fact that I'm a bit nonplussed to be lectured on ethics by a company which spent years denying nicotine was addictive, but this seems like the bumper sticker version of some pretty confused ethical reasoning. It's not like there's some principled ethical argument to be made that selling cigarettes to 18 year-olds is OK but selling it to people who are 17 1/2 isn't. I'm not claiming that it's OK to sell it to toddlers, but setting the dividing line at 18 is purely arbitrary. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the legal age is 19 in some parts of the US, let alone the rest of the world. Is PM claiming that the state of Utah is immoral? You'll notice that they don't say "18", just "minors", so these signs are quite usable in Utah.

Now, that's not to say that it's not necessarily moral to sell tobacco to 17 year-olds. For instance, you could argue that it's wrong to sell tobacco to anyone, in which case it's also immoral to sell it to those under 18. Presumably, that's not the argument that PM is making. More plausibly, one could argue that while there's nothing special about the 18 barrier, but that it's wrong to break the law in any case, but then "It's not just wrong, it's illegal" doesn't make much sense, since it's wrong only because it's illegal.


The same can be applied to age of consent laws. The world is grey not black or white. But politicians can't write laws for grey.

That's certainly true (and I'll save complaining about arbitrary age limits for some later post) but I'm arguing the ethical point, not the legal one...

If the term, "minors", is given an moral, rather than legal interpretation--that is, taken to mean, "those judged to be morally (as opposed to legally) incapable of making rational decisions about their own behavior, of the kind we expect from adults"--then I think the ethical assertion expressed by the sign makes reasonable sense.

Would you propose a rewrite like this?

It's not wrong
it's just illegal.

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