Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why Paternalism is Justified

Sarah Conly

Paternalism has a bad name.  We don’t like the idea that anyone else can know better than we ourselves what is in our own best interests, and that we should be forced to do what others think is best for us seems, to many, a moral outrage.  Many are willing to allow paternalistic interventions in a few cases, but these exceptions are thought to be extraordinary: where the harm of allowing us freedom to act is very severe (a death that could have been prevented by the use of a seatbelt) or where the facts are too complicated for us to be able to make informed decisions (we require prescriptions because medicine is just too complex for the layman to figure out.) Generally, though, we think it is morally required that we respect autonomy:  that we let people make their own choices.

Why, though?  If we can intervene in these cases, why not others?  There is ample evidence from behavioral economics and social psychology that we make bad decisions routinely and predictably.  We eat to the point of obesity, we smoke, we get ourselves hopelessly in debt.  What is the argument that we should be allowed to choose actions that will significantly undercut our chances of happiness?

If we were about to harm someone else in a serious and irrevocable way, we would be stopped.  When it comes to harming ourselves, however, we are allowed to wreck havoc on the grounds that letting us hurt ourselves manifests respect.  You might think, though, that respect for a person’s worth might justify saving him from himself.  If a person has certain identifiable goals—good health and financial solvency, for example—and it is about to act in such a way as will make it impossible for him to prevent those, how exactly does it show our respect for him when we allow him to make choices that will make it impossible for him to reach his own goals?

Much of our traditional dislike of paternalism is based on a false picture of human nature.

Much of our traditional dislike of paternalism is based on a false picture of human nature.  We have maintained an ideal of human agency whereby people are rational beings who can determine the way they want to live and then choose the most effective means to arriving at that life.   While we all recognize that people sometimes choose irrationally, the common belief is that those errors are avoidable:  we just have to think more carefully, exercise more self-control, avoid the pulls of emotion that tempt us into imprudent action.   The default option, as it were, is clear thinking, and any time we stray from that it is an aberration. This view gives us two alternatives in evaluating an action:  either it is one that really reflects that agent’s goals, or it doesn’t, in which case the agent himself is to blame for having let himself be tempted to an action that doesn’t advance his own overall desires.  In neither of these situations is interference warranted.

But this picture, hallowed as it may be by tradition and by our own desire to think well of ourselves, is just false.  Of course, we often do pick the best means to our own ends.  Extensive literature shows that often we do not, though, and that in some of the areas most harmful to ourselves we have a natural tendency to think poorly.  Work by Alfred Kahneman and Amos Tversky, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and by many others, shows that we suffer from cognitive biases, that there is a natural weakness in our ability to assess relevant information and to make good instrumental decisions.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as “man, the rational animal,” we need to think of ourselves as “man, the occasionally, but sometimes indifferently, rational animal.”  And given this assessment, we need to help one another out in decision-making even when that means coercing people into doing what is good for them.

About The Author

Sarah Conly

Sarah Conly is the author of Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (2012). She is assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. Photo: Rebe...

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