Beginning September 2012, the Food and Drug Administration will require cigarette companies to include larger, more graphic warnings on cigarette packaging and advertisements. This marks the first major change in cigarette warnings in over 25 years. You can check out the final selection of the nine images that will accompany the larger health warnings here on the FDA website.

Apparently, the nine images include some of the most graphic of the 36 draft images considered by the FDA. Maybe I am young and desensitized, but I found most of them pretty tepid. Still, the move is a good one.

In the field of ethics, we are beginning to realize that the myth we have told ourselves for so long, namely, that we are independent reasoners who choose actions based mainly on reason, is false. Daniel Maguire called this idea the “intellectualistic fallacy,” which manifests itself in a “narrowly and nudely rationalist, analytic and intellectualistic approach to ethics, [and] ignores the animating affective mold of moral cognition” (“Ratio Practica and the Intellectualistic Fallacy,” Journal of Religious Ethics 10 (1982))

This is complex and needs a little unpacking. Basically, the idea behind the intellectualistic fallacy is that humans are (or should be) completely rational thinkers, capable of making a moral choice with the same objective rigor as one would solve a mathematical equation. For example, if a person were deciding whether or not to smoke, according to this view, she would consider all the available data (e.g., the pleasure of cigarette smoking, the foreseeable risks and adverse impacts on health, the cost, etc.), and then she would make a decision based on the most logical thing to do. Knowing what we know about cigarettes, no rational person who made decisions in this way would possibly choose to smoke.

In the contemporary study of ethics, we are beginning to gain a greater appreciation for what we might call the “affective” or “emotional” dimension of moral consciousness. Such developments in ethics are facilitated by advances in neuroscience which reveal the indispensable role the emotions play in moral reasoning. On this point, Antonio Damasio has been at the forefront, particularly in his fine book Descarte’s Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, in which he argues that effective decision-making is absolutely dependent on the emotions. In other words, we don’t make decisions in a cool, detached, highly logical way. In fact, much of our decision making happens below the level of consciousness, in the ever-mysterious world of the emotions or “affections.”

Let’s return to the example of smoking to see what practical significance this point has. We already established that no rational person with all the available information before her would choose to smoke if we made decisions according to the hypothesis advanced under the “intellectualistic fallacy.” But clearly, lots of people still smoke. Why? Because smoking is cool. Which person who has ever watched more than one episode of Mad Men hasn’t wanted to smoke? People decide to smoke because they are surrounded by examples of the desirability of smoking. The more they see people who make smoking cool, or beautiful, or sexy, or relaxing, the more people will want to smoke. A Thomist might say that a person becomes connaturalized to smoking. Smoking becomes a habit, a sort of second nature operating below the level of consciousness. It’s not what we might call a rational decision, but it is apparently the way we humans make decisions.

This is why I think the FDA’s decision to include graphic images on cigarette packaging and advertisements is a good idea, though I wish the images were a bit more graphic. If we want people to stop smoking, we have to find images that will counter the “cool” images, so that rather than treating cigarettes as objects of desire, people begin to treat them as objects of repugnance. The images create a different sort of moral knowledge in people that cigarettes are bad, but it is a “knowledge” that is held by the emotions, a knowledge that inclines people away from cigarettes as an evil, and not towards cigarettes as a good.

For a long time, NBC ran commercials on the theme “The More You Know,” basically providing information about drugs, diet, healthy sex, and other dangers to “inform and educate the public.” But increased knowledge about a danger doesn’t necessarily lead to better behavior. We have to change our habits, and to do that, we need to turn our attention to the emotions.