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On Paternalism

Paternalism is the act of forcing a person to perform (or refrain from performing) an action for their own good. One of the earliest modern formulations is that of John Stuart Mill, who writes in On Liberty:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Gerald Dworkin defines the term even more formally, arguing that X acts paternalistically toward Y by doing (or omitting) Z, where:

  1. Z (or its omission) interferes with the liberty or autonomy of Y
  2. X does so without the consent of Y.
  3. X does so because X believes Z will improve the welfare of Y (where this includes preventing Y's welfare from diminishing), or in some way promotes the interests, values or good of Y.

In practice, very few people hold to a view that all acts of paternalism are wrong. Consider, for example:

Requiring passengers to wear seatbelts or motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Hiding sleeping pills from a depressed partner.

Mandating medical treatments such as blood transfusions for children whose parents hold religious objections to said procedures.

Strictly speaking, each of these is an act of paternalism, as each involves forcing a person to do something over their objections, for their own good. Hardcore libertarians aside, most of us hold with at least some types of paternalism. But our intuitions get a bit murkier when the harms and/or benefits are more nebulous. Consider:

We won't make a tl;dr version of this report because people should care about the details of my topic.

This argument—not uncommon in the research world—holds that we should force people to read a detailed analysis of a particular topic because doing so will make them a better person/citizen/legislator. In many cases, this argument is made even in the face of evidence that users do not want this type of detailed analysis.

We (mostly) all understand the problems with prohibition as a route to sobriety. But those same arguments are more seductive when the moral good is understanding how laws move through the legislature.