Paternalism is forcing people to do things “for their own good”. Since force is involved, the person applying the force judges what is best for the person being forced.
Most of us would say that paternalism is sometimes acceptable for children. Parents occasionally have to force their children to do things they would rather not do, because parents often have a better idea of what’s in their child’s long-term interest than the child does.
And it is sometimes acceptable to force adults to do things for the good of others. For example, we force adults not to drink and drive for the safety of other road users. But that is a sort of collective self-defence. Paternalism occurs when adults force other adults to do things for their own good – i.e. the supposed good of the other adult. This is extremely problematic, because a normal adult has a better idea of what is in his own interest than any other adult could have.
For clarity, from here on I will refer to the agent being forced as “the subject” of paternalism.
Defenders of paternalism usually take one or other of the following approaches. Sometimes they say that other adults have better knowledge of how to achieve the subject’s goals. And sometimes they say that other adults have a better idea of which goals the subject should pursue. Please observe the difference: the first involves having false beliefs, or what Hume might call a failure of “reason”. The second involves having misdirected desires, or what Marxists might call “false consciousness”. I will return to Hume below: he would have said that misdirected desires are an impossibility.
I reject both of these defences of paternalism, and add that paternalism is one of the greatest and most insidious of social evils. I will deal with the two defences in turn.
First, it is claimed that other adults know better how to achieve the subject’s goals, given that it would be indeed be good for the subject to achieve his own goals. In other words, people do know what’s best for them, but don’t know how best to achieve it. They’re right about the ends, but wrong about the means. The claim here is that priests, doctors, lawyers etc. have “expert knowledge” that goes beyond that of ordinary people, and so they should be granted decision-making powers over ordinary people, the better for ordinary people to achieve goals that they already have (and indeed are entitled to decide for themselves).
I reply that that is a dangerously mistaken understanding of expertise. Expertise has a narrower scope and – if we’re lucky – more depth than common sense, but it buys this depth at the cost of being less trustworthy than common sense. By all means let expert opinion be expressed freely, and let ordinary people consult whichever experts they think fit to advise them. But let’s be clear: when we take action to achieve our goals, what matters is reliability, and common sense is more reliable than any other sort of judgement. Of course like all human judgement common sense is fallible. But it is less fallible than expertise. What we all do every day to make a cup of tea (say) is more reliable than what brain surgeons, economists or car mechanics do to fix our heads, the economy, or cars. The success rate of our attempts to make a cup of tea is better than the success rate of their attempts to remove a brain tumour, reverse a recession, or replace a faulty exhaust pipe. And the thing about common sense is that it is common: almost everyone has it. Almost everyone is already in possession of the most trustworthy way of making decisions. It is right that ordinary people of common sense should seek advice from experts, but wrong for them to abdicate decision-making powers to experts. It is even worse if their decision-making powers are usurped.
The other defence of paternalism assumes that agents do not know what’s good for them, because they have the wrong goals. This is what Rousseau had in mind when he wrote of people being unfree by not acting in accordance with the “general will”; it is what Marxists had in mind when they spoke of the bourgeoisie having “false consciousness”; and what Nazis had in mind when they adopted the slogan Arbeit macht frei. I need hardly say I think this is a ghastly idea. It is a conceptually confused idea as well, as it drags moral judgement into wholly factual matters of agency. It entails that we can make mistakes about what we want, but the only criteria of rightness or wrongness that can be brought to bear on desires are “moral”.
I mentioned above that Hume thought desires simply could not be directed at the “wrong” objects. He thought that – like other animals – we desire whatever it is we happen to desire, and the function of our “reason” or belief system is just to help us satisfy those desires. So for Hume, “reason is the slave of the passions”. Reason does nothing but work out the means, given our ends: “it can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey [the passions]”.
That idea is shared by many liberal thinkers, especially those in the English-speaking world. Its humaneness is obvious: it does not puritanically judge what others should or should not want, nor does it appeal to the authority of political ideologies such as those of the French or Russian Revolutions or Nazism. Instead it prompts us to accept that people want whatever they happen to want, and if we don’t like the way they behave, we should tolerate it as far as is practically possible. This sort of toleration has made life much better for homosexuals and other minority groups in recent decades, at least in the West. It is the most important civilizing trend in history.
The guiding assumption is that what is good for a person is whatever he would choose for himself if he were free to choose. Because he chooses it himself, it would be good for him no matter how much it differs from what other people would choose for themselves.
Of course we all belong to the same species, so we share many goals as a matter of biology. But there are real differences between individuals in the way we give our various goals different weighting. For example, we all want to be healthy, but some people are prepared to take greater risks with their health than others because they want to have unhealthy fun, or they want to put their energies into their work or creative projects even if that damages their health.
In countries like Ireland, there is a tradition of extreme deference towards figures in a position of supposed authority, such as priests. As the influence of the church wanes, priests have lost their revered status. But members of other professions have crowded into the space left by priests, to bask in the tradition of deference. Doctors, academics and politicians especially presume not just to advise people on how to achieve good health, but take steps to force people to live their lives as someone else sees fit. This must be resisted. It is uncivilized.