Thursday 24 July 2014

Paternalism as insult

This article sketches a third conception of paternalism — one that locates its normative significance in neither coercion nor motives. This approach maintains that paternalism involves expressive content. Paternalism expresses the idea that the actor knows better than the person acted upon; it implies that the other party is not capable of making good judgments for him or her self. The normative significance of paternalism derives from the typical impermissibility of making such an expression. That is, paternalism is wrong in the same way that an insult is wrong. This understanding of paternalism’s normative significance provides the tools to make intelligible the charge of paternalism leveled against some policies and conversely to explain why other paternalist policies are permissible.
I've argued that paternalistic interventions tend to hit on those vices which enjoy moral disapprobation and which are enjoyed by those looked down upon by the political elites: there are strong classist underpinnings to the interventions.

Cornell notes the implied insult:
The objectionable feature of paternalism is not the nature of the interference (more or less coercive), nor the intention behind the interference, but rather what is expressed by that interference. It is, of course, true that more forceful intervention will frequently be a statement of even greater superiority in judging one’s welfare. So for this reason (and the fact that the potential for injury is greater), forceful coercion will often seem more objectionable than the gentler nudging. But it is not simply how coercive an act of paternalism is that dictates whether it is objectionable, but rather how much respect it shows to the subject. 
...In particular, the ability to make choices may be valuable as an expression of the respect others have for me. It is this value that the expressive theory says is harmed in cases of paternalism. And whether the symbolic value of choice is undermined does not necessarily correspond with the degree of coercion involved. 
Paternalistic interventions on an individual level can be justifiable, depending on context. It can be ok to arrange with your overworked partner's office that his or her meetings be rescheduled so that you can both head out for a long weekend, but nudge-interventions, like hiding her smartphone, aren't so nice.
On the basis of this humility, we should be willing to accept some implicit questioning or criticisms of our judgment. If my friend gives me a CD of music that I profess to dislike and tells me that I will enjoy it if I try, I should be willing to think that maybe my judgment was clouded. If my wife starts forcing me to eat healthier foods now and then, I need not immediately object that I know what’s best for me.
Although in both cases the action calls into question my judgment about my own well-being in a particular matter, in neither case does the implication seem offensive. It would, of course, be totally different if a stranger approached me on the street and informed me that I would look so much better if I refrained from wearing pleated pants. Or if a stranger next to me at the cafĂ© were to suggest that I eat healthier foods. 
Cornell notes that paternalistic interventions are less insulting where they are general rather than specific: seatbelt laws affect everyone, for example, and are far less insulting than putting in higher fines for ethnic groups that are less likely to wear seatbelts (were there ethnic differences). But I think he misses here that the new types of paternalism being suggested, like fat or soda taxes, or bans on smoking in cars, or restrictions on things like RTDs rather than wine, are strongly targeted in application despite being written in general terms. Poorer people are more likely to smoke; obesity is more concentrated among the poor; there are strong class differences in types of alcohol beverages consumed. Sodas and chips get targeted for taxes while double-mocha frappucinos don't. But he does conclude that you need a fair bit of background context to judge whether a policy is objectionably or unobjectionably paternalistic.

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