Autonomy and Intervention: Parentalism in the Caring Life

Autonomy and Intervention: Parentalism in the Caring Life

Autonomy and Intervention: Parentalism in the Caring Life

Autonomy and Intervention: Parentalism in the Caring Life


The basic relationship between people should be care, and the caring life is the highest which humans can live. Unfortunately, care that is not thoughtful slides into illegitimate intrusion on autonomy. Autonomy is a basic good, and we should not abridge it without good reason. On the other hand, it is not the only good. We must sometimes intervene in the lives of others to protect them from grave harms or provide them with important benefits. The reflective person, therefore, needs guidelines for caring. Some contemporary moralists condemn paternalism categorically. This work examines weaknesses in their arguments and proposes new guidelines for paternalism, which it calls "parentalism" to avoid the patriarchal connotations of the old term. Its antiparentalism is more moderate than standard antipaternalism based on an exaggerated respect for autonomy. The work explores implications for both the personal sphere of interactions between individuals, such as friends and family members, and the public sphere of institutions, legislation, and the professional practices.


While involved in a study of professional ethics some years ago, I found it necessary to investigate paternalism. I was struck not only by the quantity of the literature on the subject -- what began as a trickle thirty-five years ago has become a stream and then a flood -- but also by its inconclusiveness. Differences among the major camps of ethical theory -- deontological, conventionalist, and consequentialist -- were to be expected, but I was surprised to find so much disagreement within each camp. The quantity of the literature testifies to the prevalence of paternalistic practices. The disagreements testify to their moral ambiguity.

Paternalism is growing almost as rapidly as exploitation and, indeed, partially in an attempt to repair the ravages of exploitation. Moreover, paternalism and exploitation are becoming more subtle, with refinements in techniques of social control. Nevertheless, the point at which paternalism becomes as harmful as exploitation or neglect is uncertain. There is no consensus or even significant movement toward consensus. Age-old controversies persist about whether, when, and how people should intervene in one another's lives.

Exposure to current disputes over paternalism roused me to reflect on my own attitudes and practices. The ideas presented here very much reflect my personal experience. My analysis begins and ends with the way paternalism appears to me from my position in life, my commitments, and my debts for care received and resentments toward intrusions into my life. My conclusions are based on what I have learned from my achievements in human relations and, even more so, from my failures. Experiences reported by others give me reason to think that mine are representative and hence I am bold to make claims about human beings in general.

What inspires people to act paternalistically -- properly and beneficially in some instances, improperly and harmfully in others? What makes the difference? What can be done to foster the desirable kind of paternalism and discourage the undesirable kind? I would be foolish to think that I could answer these questions in such compelling terms as to settled chronic disputes. In this book I do not provide hard and fast rules for how we should act; I do try to provide useful guidelines and pinpoint the places at which guidelines fall silent and the individual must rely on intuition or commitment in deciding what to do. Guidelines leave a great deal to the judgment of the agent contemplating an act. Their looseness . . .

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