A Third Theory of Paternalism

Nicolas Cornell*

This Article examines the normative significance of paternalism. That an action, a law, or a policy is paternalistic generally counts against it. This Article considers three reasons why this might be so—that is, three theories about what gives paternalism its normative character.

This Article’s claim is that the two most common explanations for paternalism’s negative character are mistaken. The first view, which underlies the recent work by Professors Thaler and Sunstein, maintains that paternalism is negatively charged because it involves coercive interference with people’s choices. This approach proves inadequate, however, because more coercive actions can be a less objectionable form of paternalism, and vice versa. Paternalism’s impermissibility varies independently from its coerciveness. The second common theory of paternalism focuses on the distinctive intention behind paternalistic interference. But this approach is ill suited to explain the normative significance of paternalism because permissibility is not generally dependent on intention.

This Article sketches a third conception of paternalism—one that locates its normative significance in neither coercion nor motive. 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 herself. 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 the charge of paternalism leveled against some policies intelligible, and conversely to explain why other paternalistic policies are permissible.

* Assistant Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. I am grateful for discussions, comments, and criticism from Anne Alstott, Emily Dupraz, Carl Fox, Kalle Grill, Frances Kamm, Michael Kessler, Micha Glaeser, Jeff Johnson, T.M. Scanlon, Cass Sunstein, and Alan Strudler, and audience members at the Harvard Moral and Political Philosophy Workshop and the 2013 MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory.

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