The CDC Director bought tobacco stocks. Should we laugh or cry?

The Director of the Centers for Disease Control resigned yesterday after Politico disclosed that

[She] bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her leadership of the agency charged with reducing tobacco use — the leading cause of preventable disease and death and an issue she had long championed.

The CDC’s core mission is the prevention of mortality and morbidity. According to the CDC,

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. Worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030.

Investing in a tobacco stock while running the CDC is such brazenly deviant behaviour that one wants to laugh. But there is something significant at stake.

C. S. Peirce remarked that asserting a proposition entails a commitment to its truth.

What is the nature of assertion? We have no magnifying-glass that can enlarge its features, and render them more discernible; but in default of such an instrument we can select for examination a very formal assertion, the features of which have purposely been rendered very prominent, in order to emphasize its solemnity. […] This ingredient, the assuming of responsibility, which is so prominent in solemn assertion, must be present in every genuine assertion. For clearly, every assertion involves an effort to make the intended interpreter believe what is asserted, to which end a reason for believing it must be furnished. But if a lie would not endanger the esteem in which the utterer was held, nor otherwise be apt to entail such real effects as he would avoid, the interpreter would have no reason to believe the assertion.

Saying something with the intention that others should believe it makes us responsible, to the best of our abilities, for the truth of that statement. When scientific journals require authors to give their final approval of a manuscript, that ritual expresses that responsibility and commitment. Conversely, when someone repeatedly lies, we learn that their statements are just performances, with at best accidental connections to facts.

Something similar happens with values. When you espouse a value, you assert that it is a reason motivating your actions. Hence leaders of organisations are responsible for ensuring that the actions of employees comport with the organisation’s values. So when people behave in ways that traduce their espoused values, we learn that those espousals are just performances — empty signals of virtue — not the provision of reasons for action.

It’s wise to be sceptical about the statements of fact and espousals of values by leaders of nations or organisations. Nevertheless, it corrodes democracy when leaders have little honesty or integrity. We can’t have reasoned public discourse about laws or policy if there’s no glue attaching statements to facts or actions to values.


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