Paternalism: why or why not?

Paternalism can be defined simply as the use of coercion (force) against someone for that person’s own good. For instance, slapping a cigarette out of someone’s hand while yelling, “Smoking is bad for you!” would be an exercise of vigilante paternalism. John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that paternalism of this kind is wrong. A person’s own good is not a good enough justification for using force to restrain or punish that person – at least, so long as we’re talking about sane adults.

Instead, Mill proposes the “Harm Principle” to regulate the use of coercion, even by the government. The government should get involved in regulating people’s behavior only when that behavior causes “harm to others.” In our discussion on Thursday, the MVHS students and I discussed the meaning of the Harm Principle, its implications for government, and its flaws (“harm” is an excessively broad concept), but we didn’t have time to discuss Mill’s arguments against paternalism, and so that is the focus of my blog post this week.

Mill first talks about liberty of thought and discussion. He says he doesn’t want to use any abstract notions of human rights to make his case. Instead, he uses “practical” arguments to show that trying to regulate people’s thoughts and expressions of opinion would have bad consequences. In a nutshell, we don’t have absolute certainty about which opinions are true, so allowing lots of opinions into the “marketplace of ideas” helps out figure out the truth. And even if we did know the truth about some things, allowing people to defend false ideas is still useful for keeping the defenders of truth “on their game,” so to speak. When we confront error, we’re more likely to understand the truth, rather than simply parrot it. Here’s a famous quotation from the text:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience. (p. 50 of the Hackett edition)

Then Mill goes on to defend “experiments in living.” The argument is analogous to that for freedom of thought and speech. Allowing people to try out different lifestyles helps us figure out which lifestyles are best, and even if we know that a lifestyle is bad, allowing people to practice it will show others why it is bad and prevent them from falling into the same mistakes. So long as the lifestyle doesn’t harm others and you have freedom to leave the lifestyle, it’s best for the rest of us to let you practice it. Mill goes so far as to defend the legality of polygamy and opium on these grounds. His views were very liberal for the time (1859): even though opium was legal, polygamy usually was not, and many people advocated attacking the Mormons of Utah with military force in order to stamp out polygamy.

Mill thus defends freedom of conscience, speech, and lifestyle on completely “practical” grounds, but he leaves some significant loose ends in On Liberty. For instance, there are lots of examples of “harms” that the government shouldn’t regulate, like breaking up with a longtime boyfriend or girlfriend. It may cause emotional damage to break up with someone, but there’s no justification for forcing someone to stay in a romantic relationship. So the Harm Principle may establish a necessary condition for government regulation but not a sufficient one (in other words, the government should regulate nothing but harms, but not all harms).

Another hole in the argument comes up in Mill’s discussion of trade. He advocates keeping opium and alcohol legal because society benefits when buyers have the freedom to experiment with consuming those things, but he says that the seller’s freedom doesn’t matter at all. He says government can regulate trade because trade “is a social act” that “affects the interests of others” (p. 94). But discussion is also a social act that affects the interests of others! So if Mill doesn’t want to regulate discussion even though it’s a social act that affects others, he can’t turn around and argue for regulating trade simply because it’s a social act that affects others.

Finally, while we might find Mill’s practical arguments for allowing free speech and lifestyles persuasive, those arguments aren’t the only grounds for supporting those freedoms. Later in the class we’ll talk about John Locke’s theory of natural rights, which, if true, provides an even stronger basis for supporting these freedoms.


  • Rachel Twerdowsky

    As part of his argument, Mill states some exceptions to his rule that no person should be compelled to do something for their own good. One of these exceptions is “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage” (10). He goes on to condone despotism as a form of governing “barbarians”. How does he define a “backward state of society” or a “barbarian?” This seems to be in opposition to his earlier statement that people should be allowed to experiment with various lifestyles. A barbaric lifestyle is not something that can be easily defined. Mill would end up arbitrarily deciding which characteristics make a society backwards, meaning that, in actuality, people could not experiment with any lifestyle they wanted to.

    • Good catch, Rachel! This was a big blind spot in lots of Mill’s work. Under the influence of the thinking of his day, he thought colonialism was necessary to bring “barbarians” up to “civilized” standards.

  • Ignacio Lopez Linehan

    If I understood the blog correctly, then Mill argues that paternalism is a bad idea in practice. In one sense, he was right. To demand another to not do something that would only harm themselves because of an opinion or other previous experience you had is an immoral and out of place comment because it imposes your will onto another person and subsequently diminishes their freedom. Bad decision can only be made when bad options are allowed, but good decisions are only possible when the bad option is available and denied. To deny another person that bad option would make it impossible to make a good choice.
    But in another sense, Mill was wrong. There exists the scenario in which a person is denied a bad option and that denial results in an even worse outcome. Killing, people know to be wrong. In the end of WWI a solider make a good choice when he choose not to kill an enemy solider. He could not see the future and couldn’t know that solider was Adolf Hitler. The theoretical paternal figure in that situation would have stopped the solider from killing him either way and the consequences came out worse than simply killing him there.
    Simply put, I believe that Mills had the right spirit of preserving freedom, but his argument rests on people knowing the future outcome of situations instead of allowing events to unfold and people to discover those events from themselves.

    • Not sure I quite understand your critique, Julio. So it would be wrong to kill an enemy soldier after the war ended, Mill believes (you say). But what if that soldier were Hitler? It would have been better to kill him. But not knowing what Hitler would do, it would still be wrong for you, at that moment, to kill him. Seems to me that’s the right judgment, and it doesn’t require knowing the future outcome of events. So where does Mill go wrong?

      Maybe I’ve misunderstood your point.

  • While I think that it is human nature to want to commit acts of paternalism, (either for one’s own personal gain or as a result of some inherent need to make others conform to your ideals), I also believe that a person should have the right to experience true autonomy. Even if one does not personally agree with certain institutions or practices, (for example smoking), that does not necessarily give them the right to interfere with another person’s right to take part in said practice, as long as it does not harm anyone but themselves. Preventing someone from doing something “for their own good”, is self indulgent at best.

    • Self-indulgent… that sounds about right. Maybe arrogant too? “I know better than you, so I will force you to do what I want.” The paternalist sets himself up as a kind of super-human who can boss around mere mortals. I’m not sure paternalism is consistent with the idea of equal human rights.

  • Lindsay Kusnarowis

    On the topic of paternalism, I think that there are a variety of factors that influence the extent to which one person tries to protect another, which include the protected person’s age, maturity, and history. Our modern governments create something like systems of paternalism because these systems are created to protect and support the well-being of the citizens of their native country. Governments, in varying forms, are ubiquitous throughout history, and this supports the notion that paternalism, while not always popular, is a common human act that accompanies rational thought. The desire to protect one’s neighbor has existed when we needed to help preserve our friends’ lives in order to increase our chance for reproduction, and still exists in an era when our population is over seven billion.

    • You can protect others in a variety of ways, though. One way would be through counsel and advice. Another would be through financial support. The paternalist method is to threaten to inflict harm (imprisonment, fines, or other punishments) for a person’s own good. Mill thinks that last method doesn’t work very well.

  • Isabelle Gillibrand

    As complicated as Mill’s ideas seem to be, I agree with most of his argument. People are naturally curious and have a strong desire to learn, and there is no better way than by experience. Whether that means polygamy or otherwise, people should be able to experiment with ideas that THEY want to learn, and their right to experience should not be impinged by others. Sure, some ideas may make others uncomfortable or want to cringe on the inside, but if the experience or life style of another has no effect on their personal life, who are they to tell another they cannot do something? On a much smaller scale, that would be like one person telling another they cannot watch a certain TV show or wear a specific outfit because they do not approve and think it is wrong. Imagine if average things you enjoy were suddenly not the normal, but were not doing any sort of harm to another-would you accept government controlling your personal choices? As much as people say things that are really just uncomfortable are “harmful”, other people’s decisions are not having a negative effect on another’s life, and regulations on personal decisions from government force should not occur.

    • I think you’ve nailed the essence of Mill’s argument, which is that by letting people experiment with different lifestyles and activities, we learn about which ones work well, and under what conditions. Humans are a diverse species, and the same way of living doesn’t work for all of us. Since we’re so complicated, we benefit enormously from opportunities to observe each other and learn from those observations. A monoculture with no room for individuality would not only make a lot of people unhappy, it would make for a very brittle society with few ways of adapting to economic, social, and political changes.