Chapter Seven: Paternalism -- Strong Paternalism

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

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Chapter 7, part 2, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

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Whereas Mill is prepared, to some extent, to accept weak paternalism, he seems to be absolutely opposed to strong paternalism. One argument Mill uses against strong paternalism is often cited:

But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his well-being: ... with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgement and purposes in what only regards himself must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better [114/115] acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. [p. 133]

Certainly Mill is here claiming that generally a person knows his own interests best. But it has often been argued that this is only a defeasible general presumption, and that elsewhere, in Principles of Political Economy, Mill himself recognized cases in which the government knows a person's interests better than the person himself. One such case is the provision of education. Mill argues: "The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights" (Collected Works. Vol. III, p. 947). Mill is discussing the limits of the doctrine of laissez-faire in social and economic life generally. Government must step in to provide services that individuals will not be able to provide for themselves as effectively. But Mill does not argue that the government is justified in coercing normal adults to do certain things for their own good. His position is that the government should provide services which people are free to use if they so choose.

So Mill does not jump from the acknowledgement that individuals are sometimes not the best judges of their own interests to the advocacy of strong paternalism. He is convinced that coercive interference tends to stunt the person's capacities, and is at least to some extent degrading.

To be prevented from doing what one is inclined to, or from acting according to one's own judgment of what is desirable, is not only always irksome, but always tends, pro tanto, to starve the development of some portion of the bodily or mental faculties, either sensitive or active; and unless the conscience of the individual goes freely with the legal restraint, it partakes, either in a great or in a small degree, of the degradation of slavery. (Collected Works. Vol. III, p. 938)

But when a government merely provides individuals with various facilities, and leaves them free to avail themselves of these facilities, it does not restrict their freedom. Mill therefore justifies non-coercive government activity.

It is of course part of the price of allowing individuals freedom to choose for themselves and to conduct experiments in living that they sometimes make mistakes and harm themselves. But it is not conducive to the development of [115/116] individuals that they should be fenced in from all sorts of harm. However, it is plausible to argue that some self-harming actions should be treated differently. In order to develop oneself in any direction one must preserve a minimum of intellectual and physical powers and capacities. If, through his risky actions, an individual kills himself, or destroys these powers and capacities, then he removes the very prerequisites of his self-development. To prevent him from harming himself in these ways is to preserve opportunities for his future development, and to leave him with the ability to choose between different patterns of life. So, it may be argued, some cases of strong paternalism help rather than hinder the process of self-development.

To this Mill's reply is that a person may place such a high value on what he does that the risk of death or grave harm is worth taking: "no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk" (On Liberty, p. 152). He should be warned of the danger and of the risk he is taking, but once he knows this but still persists in going ahead, he should be allowed to do so.

But it is sometimes said that, for example, compelling people to wear seat belts is only "a trivial piece of compulsion" and that the risks of not wearing seat belts are disproportionate to the benefits. On the other hand, it is conceded that the risks involved in mountain climbing may be proportionate to the benefits it gives; these two examples are used to illustrate the same point by three different persons: Dworkin, Paternalism, p. 125; Regan, p. 200; Glover, pp. 179-80. Mill's point is directed precisely against this type of argument. For many of those who drive without seat belts will disagree that their case is very different from that of the mountain climber. They will claim, with some justice, that they value not wearing seat belts much more than is made out. By rejecting their own assessment of their values we run the risk of evaluating the benefits of an activity by our own standards rather than by their standards. If people who are aware of the risks involved in not wearing seat belts still persist in not wearing them, it may be that they find wearing them a bigger nuisance and a greater hindrance to their enjoyment than we do, or because they attach less importance to the risk of harm relative to the satisfaction of their present wants. We admire those who climb dangerous mountains, or those who sail alone round the world, and [116/117] because of this we think that the benefits they obtain are worth the risks they run. Similarly, when people defy their doctor's "orders" and continue to work hard we understand and perhaps even approve of this if we appreciate the value of the work. But where we disapprove of an activity, or cannot appreciate it, we tend to think that the agent himself derives little benefit from it. In these ways the practice of strong paternalism easily becomes a cloak for the imposition of our values on those who are coerced. But if we do not allow paternalism to slide into the enforcement of our values on others, then we have no clear basis for distinguishing between activities we are prepared to permit and those we wish to suppress.

Moreover, the desire to seek danger is often the product of a certain type of personality and temperament that some people take pride in cultivating. To interfere with their risky conduct is to deny them the opportunity to pursue their own plans of life. Friends and relatives may sometimes interfere out of love and concern. But a person can break away from them, and even in the last analysis invoke the law to restrain them. But when the state itself interferes, then there is no escape.


Dworkin, Gerald. "Paternalism" Morality and the Law, ed. Richard A. Wasserstrom. Belmont, 1971.

Glover, Jonathan. Causing Death and Saving Lives. Penguin, 1977.

Mill, John Stuart. "On Liberty". Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government (Everyman edn).

_____ Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Vol. iii, ed. J. M. Robson. Toronto and London, 1965.

Regan, "Justifications for Paternalism" The Limits of Law, ed. J. Ronald Pennock and John W. Chapman, Nomos 15. New York, 1974.

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Last modified 22 April 2001