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The Problem of Paternal Motives

  • CHRIS MILLS (a1)


In this article I assess the ability of motivational accounts of paternalism to respond to a particular challenge: can its proponents adequately explain the source of the distinctive form of disrespect that animates this view? In particular I examine the recent argument put forward by Jonathan Quong that we can explain the presumptive wrong of paternalism by relying on a Rawlsian account of moral status. I challenge the plausibility of Quong's argument, claiming that although this approach can provide a clear response to the explanatory challenge, it is only successful in doing so when it relies on the strength of its rival: the argument from personal autonomy. In doing so I illustrate that such responses are conceptually dependent on an account of respect for persons, and thus much of the relevant controversy is actually disagreement over how we respect other individuals.



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1 de Marneffe, Peter, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 34 (2006), pp. 6894, at 76.

2 For examples of the motivational interpretation of paternalism, see Kleinig, John, Paternalism (Manchester, 1983) p. 38; Van De Veer, Donald, Paternalistic Intervention: The Bounds of Benevolence (Princeton, 1986), pp. 45; Feinberg, Joel, Harm To Self (Oxford, 1986) pp. 23–4; Shiffrin, Seana Valentine, ‘Paternalism, Unconscionability Doctrine and Accommodation’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 29 (2000), pp. 205–50, at 215; Husak, Douglas N., ‘Legal Paternalism’, The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics, ed. LaFollette, H. (Oxford, 2003), pp. 387412, at 389; de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’ p. 70; Thaler, Richard H. and Sunstein, Cass R., Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (London, 2009), pp. 56; Quong, Jonathan, Liberalism without Perfection (Oxford, 2011), pp. 80–3. This is not the only possible explanation of the harm of paternalistic interference. For a brief survey of alternatives, see Quong Liberalism without Perfection, pp. 74–80.

3 de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, p. 68.

4 While de Marneffe contrasts the two and argues that both suffer from weaknesses, it is only motivational accounts that concern us here.

5 de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, p. 70.

6 de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, pp. 70–1.

7 de Marneffe argues that the project of reconciliation actually presupposes a hybrid account of paternalism that is defined as follows: ‘a government policy is paternalistic toward A if and only if (a) it limits A's choices by deterring A from choosing to perform an action or by making it more difficult for A to perform it; (b) A prefers A's own situation when A's choices are not limited in this way; (c) the government has this policy only because those in the relevant political process believe or once believed that this policy will benefit A in some way, and (d) this policy cannot be fully justified without counting its benefits to A in its favour’ (de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, pp. 73–4). Given that we are interested in motivational accounts and not the project of reconciliation, this definition need not concern us too much.

8 See Shiffrin, ‘Paternalism, Unconscionability Doctrine and Accommodation’, p. 218.

9 Shiffrin, ‘Paternalism, Unconscionability Doctrine and Accommodation’, p. 220.

10 de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, p. 77.

11 See de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, pp. 77–81.

12 See Anderson, Elizabeth, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109 (1999), pp. 287337, at 301–2 and 330.

13 de Marneffe, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’, p. 81.

14 See Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, pp. 100–6. Quong claims that his argument does not contradict de Marneffe's previous rejection of arguments from moral status because de Marneffe is searching for grounds for an absolute prohibition against paternalistic state action, whereas Quong is merely seeking to explain the presumptive wrong that characterizes paternalistic acts. To contradict Quong, de Marneffe would have to go further to show not only why arguments from the moral status of the paternalisee cannot form the basis of an absolute prohibition on paternalistic acts, but also why such an argument cannot form the basis of a more modest (presumptive) wrong. Given that Quong persuasively argues the case for his interpretation on these more moderate grounds, it is difficult to see how this stronger claim could be made without denying the importance of moral equality.

15 See Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York, 1993), p. 19, and Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness A Restatement (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), pp. 1824.

16 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 101.

17 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 79.

18 See Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 80.

19 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 101.

20 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 101.

21 The comparative wrong, however, will only occur when the negative judgement contains an aspect of superiority (i.e. ‘I know better than you do’). One could be motivated by a negative judgement and consistently believe that both oneself and the paternalisee were equally subject to this failing. Indeed this personal insight into the failing and external perspective of another's behaviour may be the fact that leads us to identify the mistake in the paternalisee's behaviour and act to correct it. This pattern seems to fit the short example Quong provides; see Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 101.

22 Quong also contrasts his argument with J. S. Mill's argument that it is the individual who possesses the most privileged epistemic insight into his goals and plans best, and thus any interference with the individual's pursuit of her good is surely wrongful and in need of justification. See Mill, J. S., On Liberty (Oxford, 1991 [1859]), pp. 84–5 and 92–3.

23 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 98.

24 Indeed the main strength that Quong claims his account possesses (aside from cohering with his previously offered judgemental account of paternalism) is its lack of controversial value claims; see Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 102.

25 Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 19.

26 This is the most important harm, given that it is necessary to paternalistic acts under a motivational definition.

27 The concept of authenticity is traditionally thought to contain the Razian criteria of independence and a sufficient range of options; see Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986), pp. 389–90. However, one can also argue that it contains a wider range of conditions, for example an information requirement; see Colburn, Ben, Autonomy and Liberalism (New York, 2010), pp. 94–8.

28 Arguing for the appropriateness of an account of respect for persons is notoriously tricky. For the purpose of this article I will assess whether a balance can be struck between an account's ability to capture some core normative truth about what a respectful act is meant to achieve and how well the account fits in with our wider normative framework. If an account can achieve this balance satisfactorily then it signals its suitability as an account of respect for persons.

29 Dillon, Robin S., ‘Respect: A Philosophical Perspective’, Gruppendynamik und Organisationsberatung 38 (2007), pp. 201–12, at 203.

30 Darwall, Stephen, ‘Two Kinds of Respect’, Ethics 88 (1977), pp. 3649, at 40.

31 See Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge, 1997 [1785]).

32 Note here that I do not mean to conflate Kantian moral autonomy with its more substantive counterpart – personal autonomy. Instead here I am referencing the employment of a Kantian argument for treating autonomy (of any kind) as valuable in this fashion.

33 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 249.

34 See Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. 29–35, and John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, pp. 14–38.

35 Rawls, John, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Freeman, S. (Harvard, 1999), pp. 303–58.

36 See Raz, Joseph, Value, Respect and Attachment (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 124–75.

37 Raz, Value, Respect and Attachment, pp. 161–4.

38 Raz has famously argued that it is a constituent part of the good life in liberal society; see Raz, The Morality Of Freedom, pp. 378–95. For an alternative universal reading of the value of personal autonomy, see Hurka, Tom, ‘Why Value Autonomy?’, Social Theory and Practice 13 (1987), pp. 361–82.

39 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, pp. 98–9.

40 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, p. 101.

41 Quong, Liberalism without Perfection, pp. 98–9.

42 For example, in some cases the quality of autonomous decisions may be important, in others the quantity of such decisions, and so on. The autonomy argument is flexible enough to be able to balance the various dimensions of personal autonomy that will be relevant to such decisions by appeal to different elements of the concept. Further clarity on this point requires larger arguments that are beyond the scope of this article; however, it is worth noting that the argument from moral status seems poorly equipped to deal with such variance, because it employs a low threshold of capacities as a block on potentially paternalistic interventions. I thank the anonymous reviewer for drawing this to my attention.

43 This is not to preclude compatibility with any form of constructivism (specifically autonomy-based approaches). My argument here is specifically against the compatibility of Rawlsian accounts and the problem this may cause for the argument from moral status.

44 I would like to thank Jonathan Quong and Liam Shields for their helpful comments on a draft of the article. I would also like to thank David Birks, Jessica Begon, Stephen de Wijze and the anonymous referee for their helpful discussions and suggestions. Finally I would like to thank the audience at the Brave New World Conference in Manchester to whom an early draft was presented.


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