Book Review


Paternalism, a collection of essays, is primarily the result of a 1980 conference that brought together the leading scholars on the subject. Complementing the newer pieces are six previously published articles, including some of the most influential writings on paternalism in the last fifteen years.

The moral issue in this philosophical debate is simply stated: when is paternalistic intervention with personal behavior justified, and when is it to be resisted? Paternalism explores the defensible limits of authority, in both state and private contexts, for actions taken on behalf of the affected parties. The topics addressed in the book range from the regulation or prohibition of harmful activities (such as cigarette smoking or mountain climbing) to the enforcement of beneficial measures (such as seat belt laws). These examples reflect the vast array of interferences in modem society that might be justified on paternalistic grounds.

In his introduction, Rolf Sartorius notes that recent philosophical and political concern with moral rights has raised a challenge to the defenders of paternalism. This challenge has necessitated a rethinking of the doctrine by critics and proponents of paternalism. The principal idea contested is whether the limits to justified paternalism should be determined in reference to the basic moral rights of individuals or by a utilitarian approach. For instance, consider a law that restricts persons for their own health and safety, such as the recent proposal to ban the sport of boxing. At the risk of oversimplification, a moral-rights theorist may object to the law because, arguably, it interferes with the free choice of rational individuals. Under a consequentialist approach, however, this paternalistic intervention would be unjustified only if the harms created by the regulation outweigh the aggregate benefits.

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