In my recent post on paternalism, some members of the studio audience objected that I used some poor examples of paternalistic laws (mandatory motorcycle helmets and mandatory seat belts). These laws were defended, not on the basis of benefit to others, but for the sake of preventing people from becoming wards of the state (and becoming a burden on the rest of the community).
There is a common response to this type of claim that I did not give because I think it is a poor argument. However, it is a very popular argument, so I want to discuss why (in the context of desire utilitarianism) it should be rejected.
Using laws that make motorcycle helmets mandatory as an example, the argument progresses like this:
“We, the legislature, are going to force you to wear motorcycle helmets because those motorcycle riders who do not risks having head injuries that would then be a drain on state resources used to care for those who are disabled. Because their actions adversely affect others and society as a whole, we are going to prohibit them.”
The response on the part of motorcycle riders is, “We are not forcing you to take care of us. We are willing to take the risk – we value taking the risk – and we are willing to accept the consequences. If we end up with massive brain damage, then don’t take are of us.”
A desire utilitarian has a response to this argument. Desire utilitarianism holds that we should promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.
Compassion represents a desire that we generally have reason to promote. It tends to fulfill other desires. The person who has a desire for compassion fulfills his own desire when he helps others, and he helps to fulfill the desires of others. So, compassion tends to be desire-fulfilling. Whereas callous disregard for the well-being of others (the type of callous disregard that the motorcycle rider above would seek to promote) puts all of us at risk that our desires will be thwarted by others who simply lack concern for our welfare.
Sp. We have many and good reasons to reject the motorcycle rider’s proposal that we promote callous disregard for the suffering of others.
The motorcycle rider may then complain that our compassion is leading to the thwarting of his desire to ride his motorcycle with the wind blowing through his hair.
However, there is a reason why desire utilitarianism focuses itself on the fact that a desire will tend to fulfill other desires. It is perfectly consistent with this view that there will be rare instances in which a good desire will lead to behavior that thwarts other desires. The question is not whether a desire results in behavior that will always fulfill other desires. The question is whether a desire will tend to fulfill other desires – this is what determines whether (and to what degree) we have reason to promote or inhibit that desire.
So, do not ask us to promote an attitude of callous disregard for the interests of others. Do not ask us to promote in our neighbors the ability to stand there with complete indifference to the suffering of somebody who cannot take care of himself. We have no reason to adopt that suggestion – and many reasons not to.
Now, we also have reason to promote a love of freedom. We should realize that, when it comes to fulfilling their own desires, the agent himself (with some notable exceptions such as young children and the mentally disabled) are the best at determining which options will best fulfill her current desires. She is the most knowledgeable agent as to what those desires are, and she is the least likely to be corrupted by other concerns. These are good reasons for granting freedom wherever possible.
One of the integral parts of desire utilitarian theory (as opposed to most other theories) is that it allows for cases in which there is moral tension – conflicts between competing moral claims that need to be weighed against each other. A legitimate moral concern for freedom of the press (for example) sometimes comes into conflict with and needs to be weighed against legitimate moral concerns for a right to privacy or to national security. In this case, a legitimate moral concern for promoting compassion conflicts with a legitimate moral concern for liberty, and we must weigh the two against each other.
So, we may allow individuals to engage in sky diving, mountain climbing, automobile racing, cross country competitions, bull riding, and other events that put individuals at significant injury. The worry that they may become wards of the state is a worry that we accept. We will care for these people, we will accept the burden, because it is more important that we accept the burden of our compassion in this case than that we restrict the liberty of those who value these types of activities.
What’s the difference between these cases and motorcycle helmets?
It’s the fact that not wearing a motorcycle helmet is not seen as an example of risk-taking (in most cases), it is seen as an example of foolish laziness. While there may be individuals who do not wear helmets because of a desire to take risks (which they should be free to take), they do not make up a majority of the people who end up being harmed in motorcycle helmets. Most of those people (it is judged) are foolish idiots who will pay for a life time for a momentary lapse in judgment.
In these cases, a person with good desires – a person with desires that tend to fulfill (or prevent the thwarting of) the desires of others – will have an aversion to allowing people to take foolish risks that tend to thwart future desires. The people who value risk-taking will have reason to object to these attitudes. However, the future person who may be saved from a state where significant desires are being thwarted has no such objection.
We have many and strong reasons to reject the anti-paternalist call that we learn and teach callous disregard for the suffering of others.