Dworkin’s justification for Paternalistic measures

In “Paternalism”, Gerald Dworkin brings to light inconsistencies found within Mill’s “one very simple principle” against the application of paternalism. He uses logical blind spots found within Mill’s argument to support his notion that there are such occasions in which interfering with a person’s liberty for the sake of his own good can be justified. He structures his argument around the two largest fallacies he sees in Mill’s work. The first being Mill’s assumption around impeccable adult psychology and thus unchallenged self-interest, an assumption Dworkin deems as “fairly weak” when taking into account the short-comings of ignorance, irrationality, and stupidity found within even the most reasonable adult. The second being Mill’s exception to intervene in the case that an individual makes a decision that will ultimately restrict his future freedoms.

Dworkin presents his argument with real-life scenarios in which people are understood to act in non-rational fashions using himself as an example when he reflects on failing to put on a seatbelt. His lack of emotional awareness for the potential consequences, one of those being actual death, is commonplace since few of us persistently act in our best interest all the time. In this non-rational framework, he includes decisions that are made under extreme psychological and sociological pressures as well as decisions that are made with incorrect proportions of considerations/values. As most adults would agree, these self-destructive manners are not irregularities but instead quite normal within our daily behaviour, thus Dworkin suggest paternalistic measures have the potential to serve as “social insurance policies” in which a fully rational individual is protected against his/her/their own deficiencies.

He expands this concept of insurance policy towards Mill’s second exception in which case the current decision of the individual inhibits their future autonomy and freedom. Both Mill and Dworkin agree that the objective of paternalism in such a case is to ensure the absolute value of choice itself and thus is justified.  Overall, Dworkin ends his argument with what I would consider two reasonable principles in justification of some extent of paternalism: that there must be a seriously clear burden of proof on the authorities to demonstrate the nature of the harmful effects to the individual and the principle of the least restrictive alternative that prioritizes a path that does not restrict liberty and achieves the desired end. There is a trade-off but Dworkin’s argument does hold validity.

One thought on “Dworkin’s justification for Paternalistic measures

  1. Cassie Srb

    Kat’s summarization of Dworkin’s main arguments is very well thought out and encompasses his stance. I agree that Dworkins argument holds validity, especially his two main principles that he uses to justify paternalism in certain circumstances. Dworkin’s claim that it is not uncommon for a reasonable adult to be irrational in their decision making, his example being forgoing a seatbelt while operating a vehicle, made me reflect on my own decisions and how I often allow irrationality and ignorance of the true implications of my decisions to draw me away from doing simple things such as buckling a seatbelt or putting on a helmet while riding a bike. Kat comments on how this is daily behavior for many. You would not think that a “fully rational individual” would need this protection, but in all actuality in the right circumstances, it could be the difference between life and death for said individual. Additionally, while Mill states that “All errors which the individual is likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good”, Kat is right in that both Mill and Dworkin agree that the objective of paternalism should be to ensure the absolute value of choice of the individual; this therefore makes it justifiable.


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