Paternalism

Abstract

"Paternalism" comes from the Latin pater, meaning to act like a father, or to treat another person like a child. In modern philosophy and jurisprudence, it is to act for the good of another person without that person's consent, as parents do for children. It is controversial because its end is benevolent, and its means coercive. Paternalists advance people's interests at the expense of their liberty. In this, paternalists suppose that they can make wiser decisions than the people for whom they act. Sometimes this is based on presumptions about their own wisdom or the foolishness of other people, and can be dismissed as presumptuous. But sometimes it is not. It can be based on relatively good knowledge, as in the case of paternalism over young children or incompetent adults. Sometimes the role of paternalist is thrust upon the unwilling, as when we find ourselves the custodian and proxy for an unconscious or severely retarded relative. Paternalism is a temptation in every arena of life where people hold power over others: in childrearing, education, therapy, and medicine. But it is perhaps nowhere as divisive as in criminal law. Whenever the state acts to protect people from themselves, it seeks their good; but by doing so through criminal law, it does so coercively, often against their will

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Peter Suber
Harvard University

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