A Charade of Justice

It is hard for me to imagine a vice which tempts me less than smoking cigarettes. I get headaches when I’m around cigarette smoke; the smell of cigarette smoke repulses me. Frankly, I’d be thrilled if cigarettes went away tomorrow, and our nation’s health would improve drastically overnight.
But it is a mark of maturity to be able to consistently stand for principle. I would fight for the right to free speech, even though I know full well that many people will use that right to denigrate things I hold dear. I stand for freedom of religion even though many religious teachings in this country are heretical to my understanding. And even though I personally detest cigarettes, there is no question but what I must side with Philip Morris in the latest court battle that the cigarette maker is facing.
Perhaps you’ve heard by now of the June 6 decision of a California jury awarding three billion dollars to one Richard Boeken, 56, a life-long smoker battling terminal lung and brain cancer. For forty years Mr. Boeken smoked at least two packs of Marlboros a day. With the help of my trusty calculator I discovered that, estimating conservatively, Mr. Boeken smoked 584,000 cigarettes in his lifetime. Single-handedly, this gentleman put some North Carolina farmer’s daughter through four years in Chapel Hill!
For all of his efforts, however, he has been rewarded with an incurable disease. The question for the jury was “who’s to blame?” Mr. Boeken’s attorney, one Michael Piuze, argued that the tobacco manufacturer was at fault, because for decades the industry had engaged in a campaign to promote smoking as “cool” but which concealed its severe dangers. He told the jury that Mr. Boeken was thus a “victim”.
So let me get this straight. Philip Morris markets a legal product. It advertises its product in such a way as to encourage people to buy it (ostensibly, Mr. Piuze would have had the Marlboro man appear not on horseback but on a gurney with an IV, hacking his lungs out, so as not to appear “cool”). As mandated by the federal government, Philip Morris places a warning from the Surgeon General on the side of all of the 29,000+ packs bought by Mr. Boeken since at least the early 70’s. Mr. Boeken, despite these written warnings on each pack and earlier indications of the dilatory effect of smoking on one’s health, makes the volitional choice to stand in line at the 7-Eleven, pay through the nose for a pack of smokes, and then smoke like a chimney. Then, when this poor soul, having ignored countless health warnings, contracts cancer, he is a victim? And because he is a “victim”, he deserves an award roughly the size of the GNP of some third-world nations?
The problems with this decision are legion, but not the least of which is, ironically, the de-valuation of the dignity of human life. Follow me on this one and note, interestingly, how the recent execution of Timothy McVeigh actually upholds the dignity of life. For years, modern humanistic psychology has argued that man is not responsible for his actions. He is either sick, in need of the latest therapy, or he is a victim in some way; either way, he is absolved of personal culpability. This understanding devalues man, however, stripping him of his dignity as a free moral agent able to make his own decisions good or bad. To be made to suffer the consequences of one’s actions, C. S. Lewis argued, is to be treated as a human being made in the image of God. In fact, the only reasonable source of human dignity is such, to understand one’s existence as a morally-responsible being answering to a Creator; to attempt to ground one’s dignity upon a humanistic base ends inevitably in futility.
The jury would have been doing Mr. Boeken—and us—a favor in acknowledging his dignity as a man who made his own choices, and who is unfortunately reaping severe consequences. In executing Timothy McVeigh, our justice system held him responsible—an ultimately dignity-affirming act, its severity notwithstanding.
One other point bears mentioning: to label the Richard Boekens of the world as “victims” demeans the very term. It is certainly true that there are people who can legitimately be labeled such: the little girl abused by a hateful father; the young mother dying of breast cancer; the 168 people who died at the hands of the monster McVeigh, along with their families. Such people bear no personal culpability for their situations, and while our encouragement even to them is that the label “victim” ought not to become one which forevermore becomes a defining issue in their lives, we can nonetheless use the term legitimately in their cases. But when everyone is a “victim”, then no one is a victim, and we become a childish society of individuals brandishing our grievances and clamoring for vindication against oppressors real and imagined.
As for me, if you don’t mind, I’d prefer to live in a society in which adults are treated like adults—even if that means those adults choosing to light up forty times a day. If you don’t mind, though, would you kindly not do it around me?

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