Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Limits of Paternalism - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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The Limits of Paternalism - 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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The Limits of Paternalism
“Autonomy Respecting Paternalism.” Social Theory and Practice 6(Summer 1980):187–207.
Gerald Dworkin and Joel Feinberg have recently clarified the nature of paternalism and the conditions which justify interference with the behavior of sane adults. Prof. VanDe Veer seeks to defend a principle that limits the range of paternalistic interference somewhat more sharply than either Dworkin or Feinberg. Nonetheless, in basing his views on a foundation not strictly utilitarian, he shares much common ground with both of them.
VanDe Veer distills the usual argument for paternalistic behavior into the following syllogism: (1) Whatever facilitates another person's own interest is permissible; (2) X behavior facilitates another person's interest; therefore, (3) X behavior is permissible. On this basis, a whole range of public interferences with private lives has been justified—from blood transfusions for Jehovah's Witnesses, to required waiting periods before divorce, to mandatory Social Security payments.
Dworkin suggests that, in cases where compulsion is not used to override an individual's judgments but to give effect to it, we have a case of non-paternalistic interference with liberty. So, if a motorcyclist recognizes the wisdom of wearing a helmet while on the road, coercively requiring him to wear one would constitute non-paternalistic interference. However, VanDe Veer replies, I might recognize the greater safety involved in wearing a helmet and still prefer not to wear one. Forcing me to don a helmet would certainly constitute paternalism, especially since I pose no danger to anyone else.
Dworkin's attempt to justify limited paternalism stems from J.S. Mill's prohibition against the voluntary selling of oneself into slavery. As he sees it, an important thread found implicitly in Mill's discussion of that subject is the desirability of preserving an individual's liberty to make future choices. Dworkin takes this to be a “narrow principle” to justify paternalistic interference, provided it helps maintain a subject's ability to consider and carry out his own decisions rationally.
Dworkin's view is complicated by another, possibly non-equivalent claim in his discussion. He asserts that he wishes to ascertain what restrictions on liberty would be acceptable to a fully rational individual. This latter position makes an appeal to the notion of hypothetical consent.
VanDe Veer dismisses the hypothetical consent position by suggesting an analogy. Imagine a P-machine (P for paternalism) which, with a person's consent, would prevent him from making any move that was not fully rational. As socially desirable as such an arrangement might be, it would be humanly intolerable. A human being's goal in living life is not just to win the game but to play it—with all the risks of failure which that entails.
As for preserving another's right to future choices, this practice also overrides autonomy. Individuals frequently choose (more or less reasonably) to engage in acts involving risks to their own well-being. A person choosing suicide forgoes all future rational decision-making. However, his decision may be, if not fully rational, at least reasonable. He may, for example, suffer from a painful and incurable disease.
Joel Feinberg's weak paternalism for-bids interference with fully voluntary acts, but allows interventions, proportionally, as acts grow more involuntary. Here, VanDe Veer worries that Feinberg's strict standards for “fully voluntary” behavior might allow for numerous oppressive interventions into actions where humans act partly out of neurotic compulsion, lack of complete information, misunderstanding, etc.
For his part, Prof. VanDe Veer proposes a principle of “autonomy respecting paternalism.” According to this principle, paternalistic interference with generally competent adults is permissible if, and only if, it respects the substantially rational (not necessarily fully rational) choices of such persons. VanDe Veer regards his autonomy-respecting position as a suitably weakened version of Feinberg's weak paternalism, allowing generally competent adults to “play their own hand.” Even viewed from John Rawls' “original position,” this principle is desirable. Seen from Rawls' hypothetical stand-point of statusless objectivity, autonomy respecting paternalism can be observed to provide salutary protection against freedom-destroying irrationality, while amply preserving our rights to take risks and act with imprudence, which supply substantial motivation for living.