Front Page Titles (by Subject) J.S. Mill: Paternalism vs. Autonomy - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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J.S. Mill: Paternalism vs. Autonomy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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J.S. Mill: Paternalism vs. Autonomy
“Mill versus Paternalism.” Ethics 90(July 1980):470–498.
Recent discussions of paternalism, especially those of Gerald Dworkin and Joel Feinberg, have tended toward a considered rejection or hedging of J.S. Mill's classic opinion on the subject. Among Mill's variant formulations of his “one very simple” principle of freedom, the following is typical and reasonably clear: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.” Prof. Arneson's paper attempts to show that Mill's antipaternalist principle—given the correct interpretation—can meet the objections of recent critics and, at any rate, has more appeal than the substitute proposals of Dworkin and Feinberg.
Considerable confusion has existed now and in the past concerning the exact nature of paternalism. Does taking an unconscious accident victim to a hospital constitute paternalistic behavior? What about laws against dueling or against voluntary slavery? In the latter case, Mill himself seems to give a puzzling answer: “The principle of freedom cannot require that he (the voluntary slave) should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom.” Translating this passage into less rhetorical language, Dworkin interprets Mill to be saying: “Paternalism is justified only to preserve a wider range of freedom for the individual in question.” In Prof. Arneson's view, Dworkin's interpretation hopelessly waters down Mill's initial bold stateent.
Arneson admits that there is an ambiguity in Mill's notion of freedom which may cause substantial confusion in his arguments. The confusion dissipates, he feels, when we distinguish between autonomy and freedom. When Mill uses the word “freedom,” Arneson asserts, he really means “autonomy.”
Mill says that “freedom consists in doing what one wants.” Let us say that a person lives autonomously to the extent that he is not forcibly prevented from acting on his voluntary self-regarding choices except when his prior commitments bind him to accept such forcible constraints. The root idea of autonomy is that in making a voluntary choice a person takes on responsibility for all foreseeable consequences to himself that flow from his voluntary choice. Thus, deciding to get drunk before climbing a dangerous mountain constitutes an autonomous, foolhardy act which others could not licitly prevent. On the other hand, preventing a man from crossing a street when he does not see a careening truck approaching is licit, since presumably the man has made a “prior commitment” to life and health.
In all of On Liberty, Mill never mentions “autonomy” once. Why, Prof. Arneson asks, is it not wanton meddling to propose autonomy as a possible construal of the value Mill seeks to defend in his essay? The answer is that Mill does at least approach the concept in many crucial passages. Thus, by approving a woman's acceptance of noncoercive Mormon polygamy, Mill is saying in effect that, while a Mormon wife does not live freely, she does live autonomously. She is living out a fate she has chosen for herself without compulsion. This and other texts concerning liberty lend themselves more easily to the interpretation that autonomy, rather than freedom, is the value held up for admiration.
Prof. Arneson goes on to show that Mill's implicit valuation autonomy suits his explicit valuation of human individuality, one of prime elements of his argument against paternalism. In essence, the capacity for individuality elevates humans into the class of creatures which ought to be treated as autonomous. However, autonomous living does not cease to be good for human beings even if they live autonomously in ways that diminish their individuality.