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Essay/Term paper: Liberty and paternalism

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Philosophy

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John Stuart Mill and Gerald Dworkin have distinctly opposing views on legal paternalism in that Mill is adamantly against any form of paternalism, whereas Dworkin believes that there do exist circumstances in which paternalism is justified. Both agree that paternalism is justified when the well being of another person is violated or put at risk. Mill takes on a utilitarian argument, explaining that allowing an individual to exercise his freedom of free choice is more beneficial to society than deciding for him what is in his best interests. Dworkin, on the other hand, feels that certain cases require the intervention of either society as a whole or its individual members. He breaks Mill"s argument down into two distinct types, one based on utilitarianism and one based on the absolute value of free choice.
After reading both articles, "Paternalism" by Dworkin and "On Liberty" by Mill, I believe that Dworkin is correct in explaining that some intervention is necessary under certain circumstances. I have come to this conclusion based on the fact that there do exist circumstances in which an individual is incapable of making a rational decision considering not only the well being of himself, but also the well being of other members of society. Also, the argument that the protection of the individual committing the action in question is not reason enough to interfere with the action is ludicrous in that one of our governments main reasons for existence is to protect the members of our society. This protection includes protection from ourselves at times when we are unable to rationally decide what is in our best interests. This essay will consist of an examination of this controversy as well as an application of my proposed conclusion.
Before addressing any opposing views to my conclusion, I will first explain my reasoning. As Dworkin explains in his essay, there are circumstances when a person is unable to make a rational and logical decision for himself. The inability to make such decisions has long been a justified reason to interfere in the process, such as in cases with young children. When a young child is about to run across a busy street in order to chase his ball, the child"s parent, or any other bystander, is rightfully justified in physically stopping the child from running into the street. This is so justified because at the time of giving chase to the ball, the child is unaware of the potential consequences of running into a busy street. A large part to this justification is the idea of future-oriented consent, the concept that once the child grows up and realizes the consequences of his chasing the ball, he will agree that the interference of an outsider was justified. Another example for which this concept can be applied is the matter of seat belts. The question of whether or not a person should be punished for not wearing a seat belt, I believe, can be answered by comparing it to the previous example. If a person were to be involved in a car accident and be seriously injured because he was not wearing a seat belt, he would come to the realization that he should have been wearing it. At this point, he will realize that his personal health is worth the inconvenience of putting on his seat belt. The fact that any logical, rational person will come to this realization justifies the interference of an outside party, the government in this example. If this person does not realize that his health and his life is worth putting on a seat belt, it is safe to say that this person is illogical and irrational. If this is the case, a decision can be forced upon him for his own well being; the same way that it would be for a child for the same reasons. One opposition to this reasoning is that an adult differs from a child in that it is presumed that the adult can understand the consequences of his action whereas a child cannot. This is where the examples slightly differ. However, there are two main reasons for an adult not wearing his seat belt. Either the person neglects to act in accordance with his actual preferences and desires or he attaches incorrect weights to some of his values, such as in the example already discussed in which a person doesn"t wear a seat belt because of the inconvenience. Despite the fact that an adult may be aware of the consequences of not wearing his seat belt, it is also assumed that this person is not trying to injure himself, and values his life. Therefore, it can be understood that this person does not fully appreciate the risks in an emotionally genuine manner. The person does not understand the possible consequences enough to realize that they are in contradiction with his actual preferences and desires. If he were aware of this and was a rational person, he would wear a seat belt. Therefore, in this case as well, it is justifiable for the decision to be made for him.
Another real life example that this idea of justified paternalism can be applied to is the use of cigarettes. In this case, the government interferes with the free choice of the decision of whether or not to smoke in the lives of citizens under the age of eighteen. This interference is justified in that people under the age of eighteen are not assumed to possess the rationality to consider all the consequences of smoking. The obvious contradiction lies in the question of why the, the government does not interfere in the decision of adults. This contradiction is derived from the comparison of smoking to wearing a seat belt. One may ask why it is legal to smoke but illegal to not wear your seat belt when they both render life threatening consequences. However, the explanation is based on the idea of what one gets out of smoking in comparison to what one gets out of not wearing a seat belt. A person may smoke for many different reasons, the most common being to relieve stress and encourage relaxation. The most common reason for a person not wearing a seat belt is because it is inconvenient. There is no gain in not wearing a seat belt. If a person were to smoke because it was inconvenient to not smoke, the same irrationality would be assigned to this person as is a person who does not wear a seat belt because it is inconvenient. In the seat belt case there is no value to not wearing a seat belt, that is where the irrationality lies. In this case, the choice is essentially made for the individual because in reality there is no real choice, just a misunderstanding. The individual does not understand that only bad can come from not wearing a seat belt. There is nothing to be gained, therefore, nothing is truly restricted from this person. In the smoking case, irrationality is waived because this individual is comparing two things that he values; smoking and his health. When it is understood that there are two meaningful values being considered, the government leaves the choice to the individual. Then, and only then, can he decide for himself on what he places a higher value.
The final example that I will apply my conclusion to is that of gambling. The reason I believe
that gambling should be legal is similar to the reason for which I believe smoking is rightfully legal. In each case, the government should not interfere because the individual has a right to make an independent decision when he has something to gain without incurring injury to others. Many people do win money by gambling. Although the chances are very slim, a person has the right to decide whether or not he will try to gain from gambling. Despite the fact that a person will most likely lose a large amount of money through gambling, there is something that can be gained as in the case of smoking. Both of these cases, however, clearly differ from the seat belt case in that there is nothing that can be gained in not wearing your seat belt.
As you can see from the examples above, there are circumstances in which the government is justified in interfering in the decisions of its citizens. A large condition of these circumstances has been proven to be whether or not there is truly a choice for the individual, whether or not the individual is rationally deciding between two recognizable values. When a person is not doing so because of an inability to fully understand the ramifications of such a decision, the government has aright to step in and help the person. This is because at this understanding of the situation, the person is not capable of making a decision that he would likely consent to at after fully understanding the situation. As in the seat belt case, often times, a person does not fully understand that not wearing a seat belt contradicts his true desires and that no possible good or benefit can come from not wearing it. However, when a person is making a rational decision between two things that he values, he is the only person that can decide which is best for him. An important condition to remember in this conclusion is that all of this is assuming that no other individuals are being harmed or put at risk by the actions of these people. Under this condition I have come to the conclusion that there do exist certain circumstances where the government has a right to legal paternalism. These circumstances include times when an individual is unable to make a rational and logical decision for himself either because he does not fully understand the issue or because he is unable to logically assign value to specific possible consequences of a decision.


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