Dworkin on paternalism Notes for April 8

Main points

We talked about Gerald Dworkin’s attempt to distinguish cases of justified paternalism from cases in which paternalism would not be justified. This turned on hypothetical consent.

What is paternalism?

I liked Calum’s point that paternalism involves the state’s overriding, ignoring, or frustrating people’s beliefs about their own interests. Well said!

Paternalism comes in at least two flavors: pure and impure. We discussed these at some length.

I added that there is a non-paternalistic rationale for at least some of the impure cases. The members of a society may not want to participate in, say, enforcing wicked contracts. That rationale would stand even if paternalism were rejected across the board.

Dworkin and Mill

Dworkin thinks that Mill’s utilitarian arguments against paternalism are fine as far as they go. Government paternalism generally will leave people worse off. But for many of the cases listed on p. 282, it’s hard to make that case. And there is the mismatch between the harm principle’s absolute prohibition on interference and utilitarianism, which regards all absolute rules (other than the utilitarian principle, of course) with suspicion.

However, he finds a different argument implicit in Mill’s claim that no one is permitted to sell himself into slavery. The second half of the article is dedicated to exploring the limits of this kind of argument.

His conclusion is that Mill’s second argument is compatible with some uses of paternalism, namely, those that the targets of paternalist interference would accept if they were thinking clearly. Of course, it would rule out others as well.

While Dworkin pretty clearly endorses the conclusions about when paternalism is justified, it seems to me that he didn’t do much to explain why paternalism would be bad in the other cases. Maybe this is because he’s beginning with Mill’s case against paternalism. But if you were expecting a thorough argument establishing at least a presumption against paternalism, you won’t find it here.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2009. It was posted April 8, 2009.
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