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Author meets critics: response
Against autonomy response
  1. Gerald Dworkin
  1. Correspondence to Professor Gerald Dworkin, Department of Philosophy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA; gdworkin{at}

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I have reviewed, and made criticisms of, Sarah Conly's book elsewhere.1 ,2 In this comment, I am a constructive critic who wants to discuss an argument against paternalism that is different from the three which Conly emphasises in her precis. It is an argument that she attacks in her book, and I want to support her objection to it.i

The argument raises a quite particular objection to paternalism, that is, that it does not treat the object of paternalistic interference with proper respect. For paternalism always rests on a premise that the agent is making a mistake in her decision making , that she is not fully capable of making a rational decision and that she is in some way impaired in her cognitive or affective dispositions. And since all paternalistic interventions assume this premise, they all are expressing a judgement about the agent that is an insult. They fail to treat the agent as a rational and capable agent.3

Two things should be noted about this argument. First, it only establishes that paternalism is pro tanto wrong. There may be occasions where an insult is less important, morally speaking, than some other consideration. Second, it is interesting to note that this objection can apply to ‘nudges’ as well as coercive interventions. For all nudges involve the premise that without the nudge the agent is more likely to make a mistake in his decisions. He will eat …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i She has a discussion of the argument on p. 39–42 of her book.1

  • ii I leave for another time the interesting question of whether some agents might agree with the government that their welfare would be improved if they were restricted, so there is no substitution of judgement at the level of welfare, but nevertheless claim that they have a right to determine for themselves what to do in the area being restricted, and rights-violation is worse than welfare loss.

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