In the previous two blog posts we saw how personal struggles with obesity are often hampered by weaknesses in the human will. Given this, it may be natural to wonder whether we would benefit from having our wills constrained, and our freedom to act limited in those situations where we face the most temptation. This brings up the issue of paternalism. When acting paternalistically we limit, or override, another’s freedom for their own benefit. The paradigmatic case of paternalistic action is how parent’s treat their children. No good parent would allow their child the freedom to engage in ruinous and harmful actions. In such cases, the justification is generally that children are not yet rational enough to make their own decisions, and must have their decisions made for them until they reach adulthood.
A similar phenomenon often takes place in cases of drug addiction. In this episode of the television show Intervention, the family of an alcoholic, Bret, used deception (and ultimately the threat of institutionalization) to force him to go to treatment. Their concern was not primarily with his autonomy but with his well-being. In each case paternalism seems justified insofar as the person whose freedom we are limiting is temporarily irrational (whether that is because of the impetuousness of childhood, or the disease of addiction).
What is interesting about this idea, is that it also seems to apply in many seemingly less extreme cases. Consider this article by Kate Scannell about recent attempts in New York to pass legislation, later rejected by the courts, that would regulate the sale of sugary soda drinks. She describes the view of those who oppose these laws as the following: “America is the land of opportunity, paved with individual rights and freedoms. Die by the soda fountain or drink at the fountain of youth — it’s your choice, not the government’s.” If one really was willing to drink themselves to death with soda, could this person truly be considered rational?
It seems that we are all prone to irrationality at times. Because of this some, such as philosopher Gerald Dworkin in the following article, have suggested that paternalistic actions by government should be compared to “social insurance” policies. We recognize the risk that comes with driving a car or owning a home, and sacrifice some of our money to offset that risk through insurance. So why not have the government insure you from those times in your life when you may not act be acting fully rationally? Given that our wills, when unrestrained, are apt to make bad choices under temptation, why not submit to a system where those bad choices are unavailable.
Those in opposition would likely argue that this is an unacceptable restriction on people’s ability to choose their own fate, and that it is unacceptable limitation of our freedom. This brings us to another important point made by Scannell.
I really don’t experience a prodigious sense of freedom in certain restaurants when choosing among eight different soft drinks in containers large enough to shelter an albatross or two. I wonder, who chooses and benefits from my purported choices? How empowered am I to demand healthier food and beverage choices at my neighborhood restaurants and convenience stores?
Is the freedom we have to buy the 44 ounce soft drink at your local gas station really one of the fundamental freedoms we need to protect? How much freedom do you have buying into an industry built around using sugar (which may be as addictive as cocaine) to lure in and keep its customers? Ultimately, there are instances where paternalism may actually increase our freedom by giving us genuine control over our lives. In a society where cocaine was legal, the addict may be politically free to do as he or she pleases, but would lack any real control over his or her life. If, as obesity statistics suggest, unbridled access to unhealthy food poses similar temptations, then more restraint may equal more control in this instance as well.