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Prior Knowledge

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Coercive Moral Paternalism

Things have been awfully quiet around here recently. I hope others get around to contributing something at some point. Anyway, I've long been meaning to write about the interesting seminar on Paternalism & Trust that Simon Clarke gave a couple of months back. It was centred around Raz's anti-paternalist catch-22:
P1. Coercive paternalism is justified only if the paternalist is someone reasonably trusted by the coerced.

P2. A person subjected to coercive moral paternalism cannot reasonably trust the government.

C. Coercive moral paternalism is not justified.

Simon was basically arguing that P2 needs to be modified to recognize that trust comes in degrees, so although paternalism undermines trust, this might be counterbalanced by other "trustworthiness-enhancing conditions of government". An interesting point came out in discussion (from Philip, I think), that the perceived legitimacy of compulsory voting might support this thesis. Voting increases trust in the government by involving one in the democratic process, which may explain why this particular case of coercive paternalism is more acceptable than most.

Anyway, I was wanting to discuss a slightly different issue. It seems to me that the distinction between moral and non-moral paternalism is not entirely clear-cut. Simon defined coercive moral paternalism (CMP) as "use of threats to prevent a person from following their way of life for their own good", e.g. laws against drugs, prostitution, pornography, gambling, etc. Typical examples of non-moral paternalism, by contrast, would be seat-belt and cycle-helmet laws.

I take it the idea is that moral paternalism goes against the person's own values, whereas non-moral paternalism does not. But do the examples really show a difference in kind? Someone might really dislike helmets, or not want to mess up his carefully styled hair whenever he cycles. To force him to wear a helmet anyway would thus seem to be a case of forcing values upon him that he does not share. (You might say that it's to protect his health, which he surely values. But this would extend to banning drugs, which was supposed to be a form of moral paternalism. More generally, everyone values their own well-being, and all paternalism is aimed at promoting that.) Granted, cycle-helmet laws are less intrusive than drug laws, they impose values which are less important to people - less central to their lives - but this seems merely a difference of degree rather than kind.

The alternative is to say that non-moral paternalism is when the person would, upon (perhaps idealized) reflection, come to agree with the paternalist and endorse the coerced action. But that barely seems to be paternalism any more. (It strikes me as quite unobjectionable.) It's more like a self-imposed law to help one overcome weakness of will and such. Perhaps seatbelt laws really do play this role for most people, but there would be exceptions. This definition would mean that the helmet-hating cyclist mentioned above (for example) actually suffered from moral rather than non-moral paternalism. But perhaps that's not so implausible?

Anyway, given this new definition, CMP might be self-defeating -- at least according to a subjectivist conception of well-being. If a person's good is what they would reflectively endorse, and CMP promotes ends that a person would not reflectively endorse, then CMP is (by definition) not to that person's good!

But one thing Simon said suggests he thinks that CMP is not always unjustified:
Coercion can be justified if used by friends or others whose good intentions are not in doubt. This reflects the nature of trust. Government forcing me into art galleries undermines my appreciation of art, but being forced by a close friend who I trust does not.

But does the friend really engage in CMP, or is it actually a case of non-moral paternalism? Perhaps we assume that our friend shares our values, so that his judgment is indicative of what our own values commit us to, or what we would reflectively endorse. That seems a possible alternative explanation, anyway. I'd be curious to hear what others think.

One final (and somewhat hasty) point: P1 strikes me as pretty implausible. The strongest argument against paternalism comes from the value of autonomy, of course. But if we set that aside, surely the only other grounds for opposing it are utilitarian. If we set aside autonomy, then coercive paternalism is justified iff it actually succeeds in making the target better-off. Trust is only relevant insofar as it affects whether the paternalism will be successful. If you can truly (successfully) improve my life, what does it matter whether I trust you?

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