Paternalism Parable

My newly published parable, saying we should be clearer on what justifies our paternalism, or be less paternalistic:

Imagine finding yourself near someone about to walk off a cliff. If he seems distracted enough to not notice a crucial bend in the cliff edge, you might feel quite justified in grabbing his arm, to stop him from falling. You might even expect his gratitude.

But what if he seems well aware of the cliff before him? Well, if he seems crazy, either permanently insane or temporarily drugged, you might still grab him. You might also grab him if you knew his family would miss him terribly. In such cases you might at least expect gratitude from his family, his caretaker, or his future sober self. And if you were morally outraged enough by the very idea of walking off a cliff, you might grab him no matter who was grateful or offended.

But what if, aside from the whole cliff thing, he seems no crazier or immoral than most? What if his action mainly affected only him? What if the cliff was only five feet tall, or 20 feet tall over deep water, or if he walked near the cliff at what he considered a close but safe distance? You might still think of grabbing his arm, if you thought you understood something important that he did not. Perhaps you know the wind is unusually gusty, or the ground is unusually slippery. Perhaps there is no time to explain, or he doesn’t understand your language.

But what if he does understand you, and there is time enough to say "Watch out! That cliff is dangerous." If he dismisses your concern and does not back away, would that justify your intervention? Well we can’t very well allow anyone to intervene in anyone else’s life anytime they feel like it. So if you persist in grabbing we might let him sue you for assault.

But what if you were not alone? What if a great many of you also thought him careless? What if you lived in a democracy and could get enough voters to pass a law banning cliff-walking? Perhaps your law requires tall fences, or threatens to jail those who approach cliffs. Are you justified now?  Even in this situation, you are arrogant if you do not at least consider the possibility the cliff-walker knows what he is doing. …

Read the whole thing here.

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