Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism

By in Philosophy on June 16, 2013

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Since Mill’s seminal work On Liberty, philosophers and political theorists have accepted that we should respect the decisions of individual agents when those decisions affect no one other than themselves. Indeed, to respect autonomy is often understood to be the chief way to bear witness to the intrinsic value of persons. In this book, Sarah Conly rejects the idea of autonomy as inviolable. Drawing on sources from behavioural economics and social psychology, she argues that we are so often irrational in making our decisions that our autonomous choices often undercut the achievement of our own goals. Thus in many cases it would advance our goals more effectively if government were to prevent us from acting in accordance with our decisions. Her argument challenges widely held views of moral agency, democratic values and the public/private distinction, and will interest readers in ethics, political philosophy, political theory and philosophy of law.

3 thoughts on “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism

  1. Brian Massie
    86 of 102 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    For Authoritarianism, keeping the dream of “1984” alive, February 16, 2013

    This review is from: Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (Hardcover)

    Ever been at an expensive restaurant and wind up choking down an awful meal because you paid so much for it? That’s what this book was like for me. “For Authoritarianism” would have been a more appropriate title, and that’s what Conly suggests is best for everyone. Just so we’re on the same page with respect to the use of the word, autonomy is the ability to make choices according to one’s own free will. If we are coerced, even an internal pressure such as guilt or shame, our autonomy ls lessened. She has plans for everyone, under the assumption that everyone would be better off if we made similar decisions, or even better, were coerced into making those decisions. She implores that “we turn to a better approach, which is simply to save people from themselves by making certain courses of action illegal.”

    Finance: She argues that the best way to encourage people to have a certain amount of savings is to make it illegal for you to not have a certain amount in savings. She seems to forget that there are those who are working two jobs and making just enough money to be broke. Isn’t the point of savings so that you have a “rainy day fund?” If that rainy day hits, causing you to deplete your savings, the result will be that you’ll be in violation of the law. Her view that coercing people into saving will be addictive, thus causing people to save more than the minimum amount required. Yeah, okay.

    Food: What if every food that was “unhealthy” was suddenly illegal? Ice cream? Too much sugar! Crackers? You don’t need all those carbs! Bacon? Officer, arrest that man! Imagine: no size larger than Small, no more buffets, and say goodbye to Thanksgiving. Her argument is that the only way to get people healthy is to take away dietary options and regulate portions. She is wrong. The root of obesity is not the availability of ice cream or a health education failure or a gluttonous national appetite. Obesity is result of widespread anxiety and self-doubt.

    Tobacco: Conly makes a lot of conclusions about the attitudes of people without knowing what they really are. Without performing and surveys, she assumes most tobacco users want to quit. Speaking for myself, I know over 100 regular tobacco users, none with intentions of quitting. In fact, in a discussion with several tobacco consumers I asked if any had ever thought of quitting. The response was telling. “I love smoking!” said a CPA in her 30’s. “Hell no!” said a business owner in his 40’s “It goes too well with drinking!”

    Conclusion: I can only imagine being married to, or a child of, the author. I bet things would be fine in the home as long as everyone did what was best for them, with her making the determination of what that would be. Applying the principles for which she advocates on the family level would demonstrate her desire for control absolutism the kind that is a breeding ground for serial killers. One must try to ignore her writing mechanics which leave much to be desired, especially since she puts “Dr.” in front of her name.

    Conly is allowed to teach first year philosophy at her institution. That should be the absolute limit of her “contribution”. Students go to school to get educated, not indoctrinated. From limits to what you can eat to making sure no one has more than one child, Conly’s book keeps the dream of “1984” alive.

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  2. 2
    96 of 118 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The Objective Wisdom of the State, February 19, 2013
    Chris Bray

    This review is from: Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (Hardcover)

    Human beings are irrational. As Sarah Conly writes, “The truth is that we don’t reason very well, and in many cases there is no justification for leaving us to struggle with our own inabilities and to suffer the consequences” (pg. 1).

    Fortunately, however, while human beings don’t reason well, government officials do. This is because they are able to be more objective than we are. Again, Conly explains this very well: “Since we do better at estimating efficacy when we are in a relatively objective position, government, insofar as those in it are not the ones who are at present tempted by the rewards of the poor decision, can help us do better to reach our own, individual goals better than we would do if left to our own devices” (pg. 10).

    And indeed, our history proves Conly’s claim, as objective government officials have acted with the reason and balance of experts who are not tempted by direct involvement in the questions being decided: the Sedition Act of 1798, which led to the imprisonment of newspaper editors who criticized government. Indian removal. The Fugitive Slave Act. The Dred Scott decision. The Wounded Knee massacre. Plessy v. Ferguson. Jim Crow laws. The firebombing of Tokyo. The mass internment of Japanese-Americans. The secret bombing of Cambodia. Drone attacks on Pakistani wedding parties. Indefinite military detention. The wisdom of government is virtually infinite, and has created a world of steady progress. When we act individually, we are irrational and reckless. When government officials act upon the human society from which they ascended, they do better to help us all reach our proper goals.

    Indeed, this is but a partial list, as it omits the deep wisdom of, say, the European state. In Europe, too, government officials acting from relatively objective positions have been able to create clear examples of rational progress. Like miles of trenches cloaked in poison gas, say, or a uniquely efficient rail system in Poland.

    For some final, powerful examples of Conly’s argument at work in the real world, just read the very first sentence of her book, which explains the problems a paternalistic government could help us to solve: “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”

    See? Too much debt! No savings for the future!

    We individuals and societies are reckless, but government would never behave like that.

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  3. Theodore Murr "blackrock44"
    34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    The Road to Serfdom, February 20, 2013
    Theodore Murr “blackrock44” (Phila. Pa.) –

    This review is from: Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (Hardcover)

    This book makes a disingenuous case for “government knows best.”

    The evidence against this premise is ubiquitous. Currently our government borrows 46 cents of every dollar it spends & has a national debt that exceeds the economic value of the entire economy. This is far less intelligent than how most individuals manage the revenue/spending dimension of their lives. The government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the “Head Start” school program that now it even concedes shows no evidence of benefit, how is this an intelligent allocation of resources? We throw away a half a billion dollars of YOUR MONEY on the solar energy company Solyndra because the owner was a Democrat bundler. A robust list of examples of government ineptitude & waste is easily obtained with a few keystrokes on a Google search. A few examples include 27 million dollars of YOUR MONEY for Moroccan Pottery classes, how about the $640,000 to research Beef Jerky…. the profligate waste of YOUR MONEY BY government goes on & on. Extensive examples of absurd waste of YOUR MONEY by government easily proves that it is LESS intelligent, LESS rational in allocating money than most individuals.

    The dishonesty of government is so pervasive that most people don’t have any idea of the depth of duplicity that is common procedure in crafting legislation. Just one random example was the passing of Medicare-D to fund prescription drugs for senior citizens. It was sold to voters at a particular price tag to benefit senior citizens. Shortly after it was passed the eligibility requirements were changed & it allowed ANYBODY on Social Security disability to participate. Of course, the costs of the program skyrocketed way beyond what the projected costs were stated to the voters. Same thing is now happening with Obamacare. It happens with every single government benefit program and yet, like the movie “Groundhog Day” we repeat this duplicitous ritual of cost projection again & again all the while knowing that it is just a con game for the voters. This is Government.

    So it’s easy to establish that government is less intelligent & rational in allocating resources than individuals are with their own money.

    Our Founding Fathers had a clear & deep understanding of the inherent tendency of Governments to drift into tyranny & corruption. For this reason they established the USA on a constitution that limited the federal power via limited enumeration. This insight is lost on the author.

    The deeper point of what is sinister & anti-human in this book is that it misses the deeper philosophic insight that the Human Good is manifested, not by humans executing certain behaviors that liberal/leftists elites designate as Good, rather, it results from individual understanding. It is individuals exercising their own moral intelligence, and then executing the behaviors that spring from it. Moral good is not the act of holding the door for the pregnant woman because a nanny state functionary tells you to, but instead, it’s good because the action originates from, & is driven by, one’s own moral insight discovered & affirmed thru the exercise of one’s own rationality.

    This author lapses into what Heidegger refers to as Inauthenticity. She confuses the being of Humans with things in the world. But the authentic Human-being is undetermined & creative. Humans project possibilities that previously had not existed & many of these creative ideas would certainly be not approved by paternalistic timid government bureaucrats. This author’s vision is for humans to be treated like mere things in the world who are spoon-fed what is “good” for them by the elites of a ruling class (who of course, always exempt themselves from the dictates they impose on the masses.) Human authenticity is not found in the paradigm of being molded by elites. Humans “raise their game” & become more intelligent when they exercise autonomy & responsibility. It is autonomy that makes our judgements & the acts based on them, authentically ours. The author’s prescription will,of course, devolve into a mere subterfuge for groups to dominate the individual & limit creative possibilities.

    The turning point will be when humans start to perceive & accept that what is best for them is what is defined & prescribed by an elite cadre of bureaucrats & politicians. It will result in individuals being used as fodder for a self-interested ruling class who gain power & wealth & manipulate individuals by prescribing approved “rational” actions that benefit the governing elite. It is the incremental Road to Serfdom. It’s already starting to happen.

    The expansion of human creativity, profundity of thought & breakthru thinking is promulgated by the fostering of human autonomy & personal responsibility, not in its reduction. As Dennis Prager says “The bigger the state the smaller the individual.”

    The essential…

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