Tuesday, August 19, 2008


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.


Unknown said...

"Examples of this include wearing motorcycle helmets or seatbelts, wearing flotation device when out on a boat..."


These regulations are required so that, in the first case, society does not have to bear the financial burdens of disabled individuals who are severely injured in accidents and, in the second, so that rescuers' lives are not put at risk when an accident happens.

dbonfitto said...

I'm with you buster.

Seatbelt and helmet laws are there to mitigate the externalized costs of accidents on public roads. It's part of the contract that lets us use those public properties.

You can jump over a pit of alligators naked on your motorcycle if you're doing it on your own property and not expecting rescue.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am afraid that this defense of paternalistic laws goes too far. People engage in a lot of behaviors that put them at risk of requiring public care. Smoking, drinking, over-eating, under-exercise. We permit rock-climbing and skiing, which puts people at risk of injuring themselves and of needing rescue.

It is also the case that seatbelts and motorcycle helmets do not decrease accidents (thus they do not decrease the need for rescue). Some evidence suggests that they increase accidents by making accidents less costly to individuals.

So, the observed results cannot actually be explained in terms of the public care of the disbled hypothesis, or the need for rescue hypothesis.

anton said...

Hi Gang,

"Wearing seat belts . . ."

While I was in the UK parents followed the law of "children had to be in the back seat", but their message to the their children was invariably "you have to sit in the back seat because if you don't Daddy and Mommy will get fined". I never heard parents tell their children that "the parents" wanted to protect their children . . . it was the law protecting their kids.

Seatbelts suffered the same explanation where the child's safety invariably came second to a "dollar cost" encountered if they didn't use their belts and were caught. Do we all remember the cry of "loss of rights" when seat belt laws were being introduced? It appears that a fear of "loss of money" trumped "safety".

I believe that a lot of parents are "buckling up" only because they are being hounded by their children. Parents will go so far as to place the belt over their lap to "fool their own kids" and any police official who may be "looking".

The use of "seatbelts" has only come about because it is now very costly if you don't, I mean costly in the sense of dollars.

I heartily congratulate all parents who observe safety rules, but especially thouse who use them to confirm their "love" for their children, as well as respect for those laws that are being followed.

Unknown said...

My problem with paternalistic arguments relying on purported "future desires" is that future desires are by nature extremely speculative. My grandfather was in the military and fought in the Korean war. He had great stories about his service (not that going to war was "great"), enjoyed a lifetime of participating in veterans activities, etc. However, an argument could have been made back when he was a young man that he would theoretically be worse off if he joined the military because if he were killed he would be "upset with his decision" and would miss out on the rest of his life. Nevermind that this was a risk that he was willing to take on - it certainly was not a certainty.

An individual must necessarily weigh all sorts of things when they participate in a dangerous activity - if I decide to ride a motorcycle without a helmet I have to weigh the X amount of enjoyment I get from it against the Y amount of misery I would suffer if I were severely injured x the Z% chance I will be injured. This cannot be done by another person for me at the time I make the decision. To be sure, in hindsight I would be miserable that I took a chance of severe injury if I suffered that injury, but it was a risk I voluntarily took in order attain the enjoyment I would get from taking that risk.

Further, I think the paternalistic argument assumes that future desires outweigh current desired without demonstrating that those future desires should be given more weight.

dbonfitto said...

Sometimes laws, rules, and regulations protect wallets and sometimes they protect skulls. Sometimes both.

Nobody likes to wear safety equipment. Hard hats, helmets, safety glasses, seatbelts, PFDs, PFASs, steel-toed boots, and arc-flash resistant clothing are all hot, bulky, and uncomfortable. We wear them for some of the same reasons that knights wore armor: protection from a hostile environment filled with unforeseeable dangers.

If you think that a drunk, distracted, or angry driver in a SUV doing 80mph is any less dangerous than heavy cavalry, you'd be ignoring physics.

Safety equipment is there to mitigate the severity of an accident or impact, not to prevent it. Accident prevention is usually part of a different set of rules that we call traffic laws. Driving on the correct side of the road, yielding right of way, and observing speed limits are ways to prevent accidents. Wearing a seat belt is a way to protect yourself when those other rules fail. (n.b. Here in PA, deer are notorious jaywalkers.)

Should the state require helmets and seatbelt use? In the same way that the state requires a driver to bring his vehicle to a full stop at red octagons, it should mandate the use of proper safety equipment on public roads. It's a condition of using the road.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I would like to point out that none of the concerns about whether wearing seatbelts or motorcycle helmets are legitimate examples of paternalism affect my argument that paternalism can be a legitimate moral (and legal) concern.

That is to say - it does not affect my defense of the principle that it can be legitimate to regulate current behavior to protect the interests of the same person at a future time, given that the relationship between a person and his future desires is the same as the relationship between a person and the current desires of other people.

Though, ultimately, paternalism has other problems that may overwhelm these considerations.