Dworkin on paternalism Notes for April 9–14

Main points

The article we read by Gerald Dworkin does two things.

First, it draws a distinction between pure and impure cases of paternalism. A policy counts as paternalistic if it seeks to reduce the opportunities available to a person for that person’s own good.

Second, it describes a strategy for of justifying paternalistic intervention directed against non-consenting adults. Specifically, it proposes irrationality as a necessary condition for justified paternalism.

Our discussion of rationality

We went into some of the difficulties with trying to classify beliefs, actions, and even people as irrational. Of course, we waded right into one of the thorniest issues: the rationality of religious belief. It’s a wonderful topic, but perhaps one better saved for another occasion.

The plausibility of Dworkin’s proposal is probably better tested by considering whether there are any cases in which its application would make sense. If the answer is “no,” then we can stop there. If it’s “yes,” then we can ask whether we could restrict its application to avoid some of the problem areas we touched on.

The cases Dworkin mentioned concern irrationality in action (seat belts) and irrationally under stressful circumstances (suicidal thoughts). There’s nothing especially exotic about these cases. We’re all subject to mental blurps like these and most of us would welcome help in getting through them.

Of course, even if you find those cases persuasive as I do, it doesn’t follow that we can employ the state in a sensitive enough way. Identifying irrational behavior that is a good candidate for paternalistic intervention is only a necessary condition of justified paternalistic intervention, not a sufficient one. But I suspect it’s likely that we could figure something out.


We had a brief discussion of legal mechanisms that people might use to bind themselves. The article that I was referring to is Thomas Schelling’s “Self-Command in Practice, in Policy, and in a Theory of Rational Choice.”** The American Economic Review, Vol. 74 (May, 1984), pp. 1-11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1816322

Liz let me know about a device based on some of the principles you all mentioned: the SnüzNLüz - Wifi Donation Alarm Clock. I just have one question. Would it be better if they called it “USnüz-ULüz”?

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2008. It was posted April 14, 2008.
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