January 22, 2012
AMERICAN INDIVIDUALISM AS A RATIONALIZATiON OF SOCIAL AND MORAL IRRESPONSIBILITY
Peter Benson, Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry, with a Foreword by Allan M. Brandt (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2012) (From the Foreword: "There is a disturbing message here about how deep cultural processes and social dynamics allow people to rationalize what they do. Benson finds a common 'script' carefully authored and promoted by the tobacco industry and spoken confidentially and fluently by the farmers it so aggressively exploits. According to this logic, the diseases associated with the tobacco plants farmers grow and harvest are explicitly the responsibility of smokers themselves who have 'decided' to take this risk. And, besides, they argue, there are far more serious problems than those associated with this historic legal product. These aggrieved farmers utilize a set of arguments to defend their identities against the government and public health bureaucrats whom they now view as threatening their livelihood and their way of life. At the same time, Benson show how in seeking government support they fashion appeal for special and qualified needs. Is this identity of tobacco farmers as victims merely self-deception or the expression of a deeply internalized rationalization that facilitates the mundane moral choices of the family farm?" "Benson demonstrates that notions of responsibility are central to the moral world of tobacco farmers. The only way to avoid complicity in the chain of human action that produces tobacco-related diseases is to locate responsibility somewhere else for someone else. He shows that American individualism provides a powerful context for dissociating these aggrieved farmers from the profound health effects of smoking in their communities and around the world." Id. at ix-x. Here is a variant of Arendt's 'banality of evil.').