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Coercive paternalism and back-door perfectionism
  1. Jonathan Pugh
  1. Correspondence to Jonathan Pugh, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Suite 8, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK; jonathan.pugh{at}


In this response piece, I argue that the ‘coercive paternalism’ that Sarah Conly endorses in her book Against Autonomy veers towards a back-door perfectionism. Although Conly points out that coercive paternalism does not mandate the imposition of alien values upon us in the same way that perfectionism does, I argue that coercive paternalism might yet impose an alien weighting of our own values; this, I suggest, means that coercive paternalism remains perfectionist in spirit, if not in letter. I go on to concede to Conly that coercive paternalism might be warranted in preventing actions that threaten health and that are only carried out on the basis of cognitive error. However, I conclude by claiming that we must take great care about what we presume that people are consuming only on the basis of cognitive error. More specifically, I suggest that it is crucial that we avoid defining our terms in such a manner that it becomes impossible for agents to choose some action that poses a risk to their health without them being accused of making a cognitive error in weighing their values in that way.

  • Autonomy
  • Coercion
  • Public Health Ethics

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