“It’s quite possible to be wronged by a person committing an act which is good for one,” writes Stephen Rosenbaum in an article in The Philosophical Quarterly. The article is on ancient philosophy and, given that it appeared back in 1989, would itself likely be considered ancient by the general reader today. It could not be more timely, however, because Rosenbaum goes on to examine the issue of vaccine mandates. People often want things that are not necessarily good for them, hence “it seems plain,” continues Rosenbaum,
that it is not generally correct that what thwarts a person’s desires is bad for the person. Suppose that a person for some reason desires to avoid being vaccinated against various diseases to which the person could succumb if not vaccinated — polio, smallpox, typhoid fever, or others. Thwarting this desire would be good for the person, for it would reduce the likelihood of suffering later. Some desires persons have would not be good to fulfill, and it would be good for those persons that those desires be thwarted (though this would not necessarily make it morally all right for someone to thwart those desires) (“Epicurus and Annihilation,” p. 87).
It is easy to miss the significance of that parenthetical qualification, but it is actually hugely important. To thwart people’s desires for their own good is paternalistic. It is generally believed that a certain degree of paternalism is morally all right for parents. Children can be assumed to need a certain amount of paternalism in that they are, arguably, not yet fully rational, or at least have not yet sufficiently developed their ability to delay gratification and hence are prone to self-destructive behavior.
It is also generally believed, however, that there should be an inverse relation between a child’s age and the degree of paternalism to which they are subjected. That is, the younger the child, the more morally acceptable it is for parents to thwart their desires, or to make decisions for them. As children age, however, they need to learn to make decisions for themselves. Parents who continue to make their children’s decisions for them as they mature in fact retard the process of their maturation. They may begin to resemble adults physically, but if they have not been allowed to make important decisions for themselves, even at the risk of their making bad decisions, then they will effectively continue to be children.
Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that misguided concern for a child’s welfare will lead parents to exercise too much control over their lives and in this way to imprison them in a perpetual state of immaturity. What is perhaps equally, if not even more, unfortunate is the fact that it occasionally happens that even children who have gradually been allowed to make their own decisions and who should thus develop into autonomous, rational, self-determining adults fail to do so.
Many adults today are arguably effectively children, children who are very poor judges of what is in their best interest, children who repeatedly make bad decisions on how to live their lives. These bad decisions can occasionally even have negative consequences for the larger society. People who cannot control their spending may so impoverish themselves that they end up a burden on the state. The same thing is true, of course, with respect to gambling. Myriad examples can be produced of self-destructive behavior that ends up having negative consequences for the larger society. It is thus tempting for the state to step in and assume the role of a parent, forbidding its citizens from satisfying desires the satisfaction of which has the potential to harm not merely themselves, but society more generally.
The question is whether paternalism on the part of the state is morally, or ethically, defensible, and if so, to what extent. The question arguably doesn’t arise in totalitarian states because these states operate on the assumption, either that there is no such thing as morality, or echoing Thrasymachus’s infamous claim early in Plato’s Republic, that morality is always on the side of power (338C). The question of the defensibility of paternalism does arise, however, for democracies because democracies, at least in their post-Enlightenment instantiations, are based on the assumption that all human beings are capable of rational self-determination and that it is part of the business of the state to maximize their potential to achieve this.
Not every limitation a state places on an individual’s freedom is an unequivocal example of paternalism. Many laws are necessary to ensure social order without which few people would be able to advance either morally or intellectually beyond the level of other animals. Those laws, laws against theft, murder, the destruction of other’s property, etc., are generally uncontroversial. Other laws, however, such as helmet laws, drug laws, laws against smoking, etc., are more problematic. Every time the state enacts a law that thwarts someone’s desire for that person’s own good on the grounds that their good is essential to the good of the larger society, the state needs to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of treating its citizens in a manner that is generally considered appropriate only for children.
If allowing people to pursue the fulfillment of certain desires unchecked is going to have devastating consequences for the larger society, then it may reasonable to prohibit them from doing this. Such restrictions on the freedoms of citizens within modern democracies are, and should be, very controversial, however, because, arguably, every time you treat someone like a child, you retard their moral and intellectual development, if ever so slightly, while also giving dangerous sustenance to your own sense of moral and intellectual superiority. Well-intentioned restrictions on the freedoms of citizens within a democracy can become habitual, gradually transforming once-free societies into totalitarian states.
It is undoubtedly at least partly a recognition of this fact that is behind our liberalization of gambling and drug laws, as well as our failure to effectively police predatory lending agencies. We know we are allowing dangerous behaviors, behaviors we know will have negative social consequences. We also know, however, that the solution is not in outlawing behaviors in which people want to engage, since experience has shown us not merely that this is largely ineffective at prohibiting the behaviors, but that it will tend to sow seeds of contempt for government and hence gradually undermine its authority. We thus allow people the freedom to make self-destructive decisions while at the same time taking non-coercive steps to discourage such behavior, steps such as educating children concerning the negative consequences of certain behaviors, and initiating public-service campaigns against such behaviors.
It is possible, as Rosenbaum observed back in 1989, to wrong someone by doing something that actually furthers their own good. That sounds counterintuitive and yet this single concrete example will make it easy to understand. Obesity is epidemic in the United States. According to the CDC, “the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008,” and the population has become increasingly obese since that time. Obesity is, in fact, arguably our single greatest health threat. It is directly connected to things such as heart disease, which killed twice the number of people killed by COVID even during the height of the pandemic, and, is, in fact, one of the major contributing factors in COVID hospitalizations and deaths. We could tackle the deadly menace of obesity with coercive measures such as mandatory diet drugs and weekly weigh-ins for people who refused them. We could mandate gym attendance and require proof of exercise, or exercise passports, for access to public goods such as museums and libraries. This would clearly be good not merely for individuals who struggle with obesity, but for the larger society in that it would relieve much of the burden on the healthcare system, free up tax monies that are typically spent on medicare and medicaid for other things such as education and infrastructure.
The benefits of coercive measures to slim down the American public would be incalculable. And yet we have not enacted such measures, indeed, there has note even been any public discussion of them. Why? Because their effects would also be incalculably negative. Not only would they result in stigmatizing the obese, they would outrage masses of citizens who feel, and I believe rightly, that what and how much they eat should be up to them. You wrong people when you force them to do things against their will. People, even those who are well aware that they occasionally behave in self-destructive ways, cherish their freedom to determine how they want to live. They feel diminished by attempts to chip away at that freedom, even arguably well-intentioned ones, and they deeply resent those behind such attempts.
Governments that invade the private lives of their citizens and start mandating behaviors that, many people consider should be private matters are not merely on the road toward totalitarianism, they are also, as Plato famously observed in the Republic, on the road to their own ruin. Tyrannies may be the least stable form of government, according to Plato, but even the “beautiful city,” the city ruled by the best and the brightest, that is the subject of most of the Republic ultimately collapses under the weight of its own paternalism.
(This article originally appeared in the 2 February 2022 issue of Counterpunch.)