...I think that's misleading. While smokers like and presumably enjoy the relief cigarettes provide from cravings, I doubt that at reflective equilibrium they'd want to be smokers, or would approve of their smoking. When samples of smokers in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia were surveyed, about 90% agreed with the proposition that if they could live their lives again they would not start smoking, and a clear majority (67% to 82%, depending on the country) reported an intention to quit within the next year. In Gallup polls, most US smokers say they believe they're addicted to cigarettes, and most say they'd like to give up the habit. The CDC reports that in 2010, 43% of US adults who usually smoked cigarettes daily actually did stop smoking for multiple days because they were trying to quit.

There is a lot of moralizing around smoking and I suspect those numbers are inflated. It's like if you call people up and ask them if they recycle or plan on voting. People give answers that they think others want to hear: that's not the same as reflective equilibrium. Also, the fact that people are interested in quitting doesn't have anything to do with whether or not it is pleasurable. It's very pleasurable, which is why people start and continue. They often want to stop because they know that it causes cancer. But they still derive pleasure from it.

Not true in general. Another paper based on data from that four-country survey tells us that "[a]bout 10% or more of smokers did not believe that smoking causes heart disease. Over 20% and 40% did not believe smoking causes stroke and impotence, respectively."

So up to 90% of smokers know some of the less well-publicized health risks? The numbers for lung cancer and emphysema must approach 100%. Don't cherry pick your evidence.

As to the rest of your comment: I'm not claiming cigarettes are a boon to humanity. The question was what ways of making a profit cause the largest loss of utility and I was objecting to an answer that failed to consider the actual value created by an industry.

There is a lot of moralizing around smoking and I suspect those numbers are inflated. [...] People give answers that they think others want to hear: that's not the same as reflective equilibrium.

Although I expect that plays a role, I believe the effect is small.

Even in 1978, when anti-smoking campaigns were far less intense than in the 1990s & onwards, most smokers in a Gallup poll agreed that "[a]ll things considered" they'd like to give up smoking, and while there was more agreement in later surveys the increase was gradual (66% in 1978 ... (read more)

What legal ways do people make a profit that produce the largest net loss in utility?

by Punoxysm 1 min read25th Mar 201485 comments


This is an offshoot of a thread I made earlier, but which wasn't eliciting the sort of responses I'd hoped for.

So let me pose a clearer question with less potential to get people on watchlists.

What legal ways of making a profit are the most anti-altruistic, the most damaging to society, the opposite of effective altruism in result. 

I am using utility loosely. The answers need not be given from a utilitarian perspective at all, but instead merely deal with any means of making a profit that seems to you clearly wretched, and such that the world would be better if nobody participated in it.

I'd also like to emphasize that these things should be legal. There are some obviously wretched illegal businesses that would top the list otherwise. If something is legal but only in a particular jurisdiction, then you should only discuss it within the context of the jurisdiction where it is legal.

If it's a grey area, go for it, but extra points for society-harming enterprises definitely legal in both the letter an the spirit of the law.

This is NOT about whether the enterprise in question should be illegal, just whether it causes a net loss of utility (deal with counterfactuals however you see fit).