My friend Bill inspired me to clarify my thoughts on the libertarian stance toward paternalism. The word “paternalism” is rooted in the Latin noun “pater,” or father. Today, the word paternalism signifies an act of intervention whereby one party, a well-meaning “benefactor,” violates the liberty of another person(s), a “beneficiary,” in order to provide an unwanted benefit. Benefits can be classified either something generally considered to be good, or the removal of something bad, a harm. The overwhelming majority of paternalistic interventions involve the removal of harms. Therefore, many (if not most) acts of paternalism seek to limit risk-taking by intended beneficiaries.
First of all, two parties are involved in paternalistic interventions: a beneficiary and a benefactor. So let’s break down this dyadic relationship a bit more. Beneficiaries and benefactors can be either individuals (individual paternalism) or groups of individuals (group paternalism). One important for of group paternalism is “state paternalism.” Examples of state paternalism include seat belt laws, drug laws, etc.
Paternalism involves the imposition of an unwanted benefit by a benefactor. On the face of it, this sounds absurd. After all, human beings tend to want benefits and not want harms. So the idea of an unwanted benefit seems irrational. That’s why RATIONALITY plays a key role in justifying paternalistic intervention. But in the real world, benefits and harms are subject to a certain degree of social construction. Thus rationality and social control tend to often overlap. We believe that there are some risks that are irrational. Why would any rational person choose to: kill one’ self, take mind altering recreational drugs, live homelessly out on the streets, refuse chemotherapy, not wear seat belts when driving etc. So the concepts of both rationality and HARM are central to paternalism.
But paternalism is only morally problematic in a social structure that places value on both PERSONAL LIBERTY and BENEFICENCE. Conversely, in cultures that place little or no value on personal liberty, or routinely value beneficence over liberty, paternalism is not regarded as problematic. Indeed, many cultures defer decision-making to husbands, parents, religious leaders, and/or government. However, in most of the Western world, especially, the United States and Europe, personal liberty has at least some value, and therefore, the violation of one’s liberty requires moral justification.
Insofar as paternalistic intervention violates the will of an intended beneficiary, it requires the benefactor to employ a certain degree of COERCIVE FORCE. Here the presumption is that if you do not want the benefit that is being offered, but you do not pose any resistant force to its imposition, it is not paternalistic because no coercive force was required.
And finally, we can explore the nature of interventions. Since all interventions involve costs and benefits, the underlying feature of paternalism is that the benefits offered by intervening outweigh the costs for not intervening. Call it REDOUNDING GOOD. Thus, there seems to be an empirical component involved in paternalistic intervention: either the intended beneficiary will, in fact, benefit from the intervention or they will not.
So we’ve established that there are five dimensions to paternalistic intervention:
1.) The presence or risk of an identifiable HARM.
2.) The value of PERSONAL LIBERTY and BENEFICENCE and the underlying assumption that individuals ought to be able to take at least some risks without being subjected to well-meaning benefactors.
3.) The RATIONALITY of the intended beneficiary and benefactor and/or the risks involved.
4.) The use of COERCIVE FORCE by benefactors
5.) The assessment of costs and benefits, or REDOUNDING GOOD of the intervention.
I’ll explore each of these dimensions in detail in subsequent blog entries.