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Paternalism, with and without identity
  1. Ben Saunders
  1. Department of Politics And International Relations, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ben Saunders, University of Southampton, Southampton, SO17 1BJ, UK; b.m.saunders{at}

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Interference is paternalistic when it restricts an individual’s freedom for their own good. Anti-paternalists, such as John Stuart Mill, object to this for various reasons, including that the individual is usually a better judge of her own interests than the would-be paternalist. However, Wilkinson argues that a Parfitian reductivist approach to personal identity opens the door to what he calls ‘identity-relative paternalism’ where someone’s present action is restricted for the sake of a different future self.1

This is an interesting argument, but it is not clear whether it involves permissible paternalism. At the risk of stating the obvious, permissible paternalism must be both permissible and paternalistic. Wilkinson’s identity-relative paternalism could be either, but not obviously both. If the present and future selves are different individuals, then interference is potentially permissible but no longer paternalistic. Alternatively, they are identical, in which case the interference is genuine paternalism, but cannot be justified by appeal to their distinctness.

Wilkinson may escape this dilemma by invoking Parfit, who challenges the common notion that identity is all or nothing.2 According to Parfit’s revisionary view, the present and future self may share some connections but not others. However, once we have identified these similarities and differences, there is no further question whether or not they …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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