On Paternalism

We have all experienced a moment when someone who was a bit older, or knew a bit more than you, told you to not do something or really do something, without giving any real explanations other than they know what is good for you. That is a form of paternalism. It’s when someone makes decisions on your behalf because they think they know what’s best for you. The government does it, your parents do it and sometimes even your friends do it. Paternalism is something that is something intrinsically connected to us humans.

            Now, don’t get me wrong. Paternalism can be very helpful on some occasions. Sometimes the government needs to make policy which people should follow. For example, you are not allowed to steal from others because we know that stealing is better to be avoided. Parents will put the seatbelts on their kids, even if they don’t want to, because they know that if people crash without their seatbelts on then they will have a much higher chance of dying. We can all agree that some forms of paternalism are OK. But when does paternalism go too far?

            Paternalism can be very annoying when you feel like you know something but still the other continues to claim they know what is best for you. You might want to go ice-skating, but your parents might say that soccer is a better hobby and force you to play soccer. Sometimes it’s better to allow your child to choose, because then you introduce some autonomy in her life. Paternalism goes too far in my opinion when it intrudes into your life in a way it shouldn’t be allowed too. An example would be marriage. It is none of the governments business who you marry too unless the person is not underage. Saying that only a man and a woman are allowed to get married, is paternalism.

             Paternalism goes too far when it impedes on your freedom and that impediment doesn’t contribute to your safety or well-being. This is John Stuart Mills famous “damage principle”, which means that the government is only allowed to limit your freedom to protect others from your actions. That’s why murder is not allowed. You’re not free to kill someone, so in a way this limits your freedom. But allowing it would limit another person’s freedom by a lot since that person might lose her life to your actions.

            A paternalistic state is a state where the government decides what the ideal fulfillment of a good life is and tries to subject its citizens to that ideal. The same can be said for paternalistic parents. Instead of allowing the citizens to choose for themselves what the good life is, the government will choose for you. There is a lot of incentive from the governments perspective to be paternalistic. They are chosen by the people, so isn’t their view the people’s view?

            But I believe the state should refrain from being paternalistic and allow everyone to choose for themselves what the good life is. And here are some arguments. The first argument would be, why do we need a middleman to tell us what the good life is? If we accept that people in general are rational beings capable of choosing for their own, why not let them decide? The people change social dynamics all the time. Why allow a government to change those social dynamics for you. This destroys diversity in thinking, which is something I would say is very valuable in our society.

            The next argument is an argument Friedrich Hayek makes in the Road to Serfdom against planned economies, but it is applicable for the good life as well since planned economies imply a paternalistic government. He claims that a planned economy is not in the best interest of all the people. It is in the interest of a certain elite group of people, mainly those in power. Everyone has their own agenda, which can change when leadership changes. A planned economy can change on the whim of those in power and the same goes for the good life. I mean, would the good life Donald Trump sees be different than the good life Bernie Sanders sees? I think so too and what would happen if they changed in leadership is so drastic and the state has the power to insert the good life if it wants. We would be going back and forth all the time between different conceptions of the good life.

            Now you might argue that every person is as fickle as the change in leadership, and you are absolutely right in my opinion. But this isn’t as much as a problem as it seems. When the government changes its views then that impacts everyone in that society. But if you and I change our own concept of the good life (which we should alter a lot during our lives), then only you and I are impacted by that. Or at the most some people in your close vicinity. We are not limiting anyone’s freedom with our conception of the good life, but the government is.

            Say, for example, that the government declares we should all become joggers, because that’s the path towards the good life. Now what if I don’t want to jog? Maybe I’m more of a biker. But because cycling isn’t included in the conception of the good life of the government, they can prohibit me from cycling, even though if I cycle, I’m not doing anything wrong. It just doesn’t fit the narrative of the society I live in. This example is pretty absurd, but can be easily thought through towards veganism, planned economies and other different things.

            What a government can do, is to give an incentive. For example, it is very healthy to eat at least one piece of fruit every day. The government can install a certain day in the week which is all about eating fruit. There is more awareness surrounding the benefits of eating fruits and people can now choose to alter their life. This is different with drunk driving. This is extremely dangerous, not just for you but for other people as well. That’s why it can be said that it is legitimate to ban drunk driving.

            But one of the most horrendous things paternalism does, is limit the number of mistakes you can make. Human beings make mistakes. If there is something to characterize humans with its that we fail. Sometimes miserably. But by making mistakes we learn and increase our competence. Paternalism limits that by a lot. It’s like when you never teach your kid to put a plate on a table decently, then when he’s sixteen he won’t be able to do it with ease. That’s incompetence and you don’t want that for your kid. You want your kids and citizens to be able to engage in this world in a competent matter. But for that to happen you must allow failure and this implies freedom to fail, freedom to do. Only by doing do we learn things. Just like we don’t know how to do something by just watching one YouTube video, we need to engage in the world to learn how to live. And if paternalism implies that someone acts as a parent, then seeing your children grow up to be competent human beings is one of the greatest joys anyone can have I believe. That’s the true goal of a parent.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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