Anti-paternalism and Public Health Policy

University dissertation from Stockholm : KTH

Abstract: This thesis is an attempt to constructively interpret and critically evaluate the liberal doctrine that we may not limit a person’s liberty for her own good, and to discuss its implications and alternatives in some concrete areas of public health policy. The thesis starts theoretical and goes ever more practical. The first paper is devoted to positive interpretation of anti-paternalism with special focus on the reason component – personal good. A novel generic definition of paternalism is proposed, intended to capture, in a generous fashion, the object of traditional liberal resistance to paternalism – the invocation of personal good reasons for limiting of or interfering with a person’s liberty. In the second paper, the normative aspect of this resistance is given a somewhat technical interpretation in terms of invalidation of reasons – the blocking of reasons from influencing the moral status of actions according to their strength. It is then argued that normative anti-paternalism so understood is unreasonable, on three grounds: 1) Since the doctrine only applies to sufficiently voluntary action, voluntariness determines validity of reasons, which is unwarranted and leads to wrong answers to moral questions. 2) Since voluntariness comes in degrees, a threshold must be set where personal good reasons are invalidated, leading to peculiar jumps in the justifiability of actions. 3) Anti-paternalism imposes an untenable and unhelpful distinction between the value of respecting choices that are sufficiently voluntary and choices that are not. The third paper adds to this critique the fourth argument that none of the action types typically proposed to specify the action component of paternalism is such that performing an action of that type out of benevolence is essentially morally problematic. The fourth paper ignores the critique in the second and third papers and proposes, in an anti-paternalistic spirit, a series of rules for the justification of option-restricting policies aimed at groups where some members consent to the policy and some do not. Such policies present the liberal with a dilemma where the value of not restricting people’s options without their consent conflicts with the value of allowing people to shape their lives according to their own wishes. The fifth paper applies the understanding of anti-paternalism developed in the earlier papers to product safety regulation, as an example of a public health policy area. The sixth paper explores in more detail a specific public health policy, namely that of mandatory alcohol interlocks in all cars, proposed by the former Swedish government and supported by the Swedish National Road Administration. The policy is evaluated for cost-effectiveness, for possible diffusion of individual responsibility, and for paternalistic treatment of drivers. The seventh paper argues for a liberal policy in the area of dissemination of information about uncertain threats to public health. The argument against paternalism is based on common sense consequentialist considerations, avoiding any appeal to the normative anti-paternalism rejected earlier in the thesis.