On Paternalism

by Jason Stotts

The issue of Paternalism is a pervasive issue in both moral and political philosophy, although the issue is slightly different in each case. This essay will deal with “moral paternalism”, or more elaborately it is on the ethical ramifications of paternalistic actions between two adults, where we shall understand paternalistic actions to be something like “acting like a parent to another; i.e. assuming that you know what is best for them and attempting to make them pursue this end whether or not they want to”. This kind of activity is usually preceded by the statement that it’s “for your own good”. While this is significantly different in particulars from political paternalism, many of the same principles will apply in each case and so our analysis will apply to both moral and political paternalism, although I will focus exclusively on the former here.

The best way to start our analysis is to look at true parental actions – we need to look at the nature of the relationship between a parent and a child. This relationship is characterized by the parent trying to help raise the child – the parent knows what is best for the child (usually) and so it is their job to help guide the child into the right choices and decisions, sometimes even forcing them to do specific actions or prohibiting them from other actions. Basically the parent is in charge of the child and is primarily responsible for their upbringing, the child is supposed to follow the parent’s advice and is not completely responsible for his actions, since he does not have fully developed mental faculties and does not yet know what is best for himself.

Now a full adult, as against a child, is completely responsible for their own actions – since Man is a being of volitional consciousness and life necessitates specific actions, one must take the actions necessary for one’s continued existence as a Man. One is responsible for the condition of one’s own life; this responsibility is only to oneself and any default is payable to reality since while one is free to act however one pleases, one is not free to evade reality as it immutable and will allow no improper actions to go on in the long run. People must think for themselves and determine the best course of action for their life consistent with their goals and their hierarchy of values. No one else can do this for them – while someone can help with this process, it is only the reasoning that is useful and not the conclusions. If you want to have good rational thought, then you must evaluate the reasoning underlying the conclusions you accept lest you be left with castles in the clouds, divorced from reality and precariously perched. Now, on to the issue of paternalism.

Paternalism is an easy trap for people to fall into as all of us experienced this as we were being raised (some moreso than others) and it’s easy to think “well, I know what is best for him so I’m going to help make sure that he does it, even if I have to force him a little”. It’s easy to say and I know I myself have fallen prey to this line of thinking, but it is nonetheless very wrong.

First knowledge forced upon someone else is absolutely worthless to them, our minds cannot operate under force and it is not the conclusions that would be useful, but rather the reasoning.

Second, if one succeeds in being paternalistic, then the results are not some noble goal achieved, but rather what is achieved is the death of the independence and identity of the person whom the goals were forced upon. In so “helping” the other person you are destroying their ability to act for themselves and destroying their character. No matter the intentions of the “helper” – the result is the same, the growth of dependence and an inability to handle life without guidance. It’s like the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, no matter how seemingly noble your intentions are it is always wrong to try to force someone’s mind.

This whole issue is exacerbated in a loving relationship because the connection between the two people is stronger. Given the nature of a loving relationship involves the intertwining of two separate and independent souls, the relation must be equal or else one soul will be dominated by the other. The unequal power structure often involves one person being paternalistic to the other, which is assuredly the quickest way to cast the other into resentment – or if they are not so cast, then they are not worthy of love. Paternalism in a relationship is deadly to it, at least to a true relationship as it precludes the possibility of true love.

Although we of course want our significant other to help us in our times of need, we cannot have them cross the fine line to paternalism.

If you love someone you have to let them live for themselves and make their own mistakes, otherwise how could you be proud of them if they aren’t really choosing their own path? Is it not better to let them live free and comfort them when they stumble, catch them when they fall, and sing their praises when they soar? What good is it to love a slave, even if it is a slave that you yourself made?

Although it can be painful to know the right thing to do and watch our beloved flounder, if we do more than try to guide them down the right path, if we try to carry them ourselves, we will destroy our beloved as surely as their demise and little could it be called something else when their soul dies.

We must brace our hearts to the possible pain of watching our beloved flounder and ward our hearts against helping too much, lest we kill ourselves that which we love most.

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