Paternalism refers to a set of laws where a person’s liberty is denied to them for their own benefit. In other words, people are prohibited from doing things that are harmful to themselves, or required to do things that benefit themselves. Examples of this include wearing motorcycle helmets or seatbelts, wearing flotation device when out on a boat.
Desire utilitarianism has some implications about this sort of legislation that is not typically found in public debate.
Desire utilitarianism is built on a theory of behavior that says that a person always acts to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs. More specifically, a person always acts on the most and strongest of their current desires. Future desires have no effect on current behavior.
There are three ways in which a person’s future desires can be fulfilled by current desires. The individual can have a desire that future desire to fulfill future desires. She can have a desire that future desires be fulfilled. Or she can have desires that tend to fulfill other desires as an unintended consequence or side effect.
This is how addictions are possible. Addictions are particularly strong current desires that tend to thwart future desires. Because future desires have no direct effect on current behavior, it is quite possible for an agent to be fully aware of the fact that the addiction will thwart future desires, and still not be able to keep from giving in to the addiction. To beat an addiction, the agent must somehow muster current desires that outweigh the force of the addiction or weaken the addiction below the level of other current desires.
These relationships that I described between a person’s current desires and his future desires are exactly the same as the relationships that exist between a person’s current desires and the desires of other people. Specifically, there are three ways in which the desires of other people can be fulfilled by an agent’s current desires. The individual can have a desire to fulfill the desires of others. She can have a desire that the desires of others are fulfilled. Or she can have desires that tend to fulfill other desires as an unintended consequence or side effect.
When it comes to this relationship between a person’s desires and the desires of others, we typically demand that a person consider the desires of others, and we are willing to condemn or punish him if this is not the case.
This is no less true when a person acts so as to thwart the future desires of other people. In this case, an individual’s relationship to other desires are twice removed. First, they are desires of other people. Second, they are future desires. Yet, here, too, we have no qualms against morally condemning and legally prohibiting a person from acting in ways that thwart those other desires.
So, why object to morally condemning and legally prohibiting a person from thwarting his own future desires?
One of the implications of these principles is that the future person – the person an agent will become – is entirely incapable of defending his own interests. There is absolutely nothing he can do to bribe or coerce his earlier self into doing the right thing. Again, in the realm of morality and of law, we tend to be strictest in our impositions on people when they are dealing with those who cannot defend themselves. If the potential victim is a child or otherwise disabled, we are more inclined to impose limits on what others may do, not less.
In spite of these considerations, there is still an argument to be made against paternalistic morals and laws. Again, it comes from the fact that people act to fulfill the most and the strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs. If you ever give somebody else control over your life, you can count on the fact that he will continue to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires.
If his desires are desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, then this might not be a problem. However, even those desires will have to go up against the other desires the agent may have – desires for sex, desires that can be fulfilled through money, aversion to pain. Those other concerns will inevitably drive the agent to act in ways that sacrifice your interests for their own.
This is less of a problem when the person being sacrificed and the person obtaining the benefit of that sacrifice are the same person. In these cases, we may argue that the good and the bad balance each other out. And even if they do not, the same person gets both the shorter and the longer end of the stick. This is more of a problem when the person who benefits (the person given decision-making power), and the person whose life he has the power to direct are not the same person.
So, this essay is not an essay that gives a clean bill of health to paternalistic morals and legislation. This essay merely hopes to introduce some considerations that those who are opposed to paternalistic morals and legislation tend to ignore.
Those opponents tend to treat all of an agent’s desires as having weight in the present. They say that the agent obviously values the feel of the wind through his hair more than the possible loss of health and well-being that would result from getting in a motorcycle accident, and we should not impose our values on him. However, it may be more accurate to say that the agent is yielding to a weaker current desire because, even though the future desires being thwarted are more and stronger, they cannot reach back in time to influence current behavior. So, the agent is fulfilling a weaker current desire at the expense of more and stronger future desires. It is not always the case that an agent does what is in his own best long-term interest.