Moral Status and the Wrongness of Paternalism

DAVID BIRKS
SOCIAL THEORY AND PRACTICE 40.3 (2014): 483-498

According to the dominant view among liberal philosophers, paternalism is wrong when it interferes with a person’s autonomy. Jonathan Quong has recently rejected this view in favor of a moral status-based account. Birks argues that we should reject Quong account.

There are two distinct autonomy objections to paternalistic interferences with a person’s autonomy. The first objection is that paternalism is wrong because autonomy is a significant part of a person’s good. Paternalistic interventions that are contrary to the paternalizee’s autonomy do not benefit the paternalizee, and so are self-defeating. The second autonomy-based objection to paternalism is that paternalistic interventions are wrong when they violate the paternalizee’s right to autonomy, even if the interference benefits him.

In Liberalism Without Perfection, Jonathan Quong rejects both of these autonomy objections to paternalism, and provides a novel under- standing of the wrongness of paternalistic behavior. He rejects the first objection because it requires that we accept an overly narrow account of a person’s good, and many reasonable people do not share it. He provides two arguments to reject the second objection. The first argument is that it the autonomy view is too permissive. If the wrongness of paternalistic intervention is based on frustrating the autonomy of the object of the paternalism, it cannot account for the wrongness of paternalistic interventions that protect the object of the paternalism’s capacity for autonomy. The second argument is that many reasonable people do not hold that autonomy has significant value independent of what is chosen. Rather, what matters to them is that the chosen ends are valuable. Consequently, this autonomy objection to anti-paternalism cannot be justified to these reasonable people. Quong then proposes that paternalistic behavior is wrong when it diminishes the paternalizee’s moral status.

Although Quong’s Moral Status Argument circumvents the problems with autonomy-based views, in this paper Birks argues that we should reject the Moral Status Argument because it is simultaneously both too narrow and too broad. It is too narrow in that it fails to account for the wrongness of a number of paternalistic interventions that are commonly considered the most objectionable, namely, strong paternalistic interventions. It is too broad in that it is unable to distinguish between wrongful paternalistic acts that are plausibly considered more wrong than other wrongful paternalistic acts.