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Identity-relative paternalism and allowing harm to others
  1. David Birks
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Birks, Department of Politics and Public Administration, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, People's Republic of China; birks{at}

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Dominic Wilkinson’s defence of identity-relative paternalism raises many important issues that are well worth considering.1 In this short paper, I will argue that there could be two important differences between the first-party and third-party cases that Wilkinson discusses, namely, a difference in associative duties and how the decision relates to the decision maker’s own autonomous life. This could mean that identity-relative paternalism is impermissible in a greater number of cases than he suggests.

Let us begin by examining a key part of Wilkinson’s argument. He writes that ‘even if these [third-party] decision-makers are autonomous adults, their decisions will cause harm to other people, and on that basis, should be overruled’ (Wilkinson, p3).1

We can take issue with this statement for at least two reasons. First, it is not clear that these third-party decision makers cause harm by making these decisions. Rather, we might think the third-party decision makers are merely allowing harm to take place.

This matters because many people hold that it is morally worse to cause harm than to allow harm. For example, we might think it is morally worse to send poisoned food to a starving person, causing his death, than to allow that person to die from starvation by not providing aid (Foot, p150).2

To be clear, I am not claiming that this is a difference between the first-party and third-party cases. We might plausibly …

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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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