Liberal Nicene Creed

Paternalism is the use of coercion to force people to do or refrain from something against their will for their own good. Liberals of all stripes generally reject paternalism for reasons most lucidly laid out in J.S. Mill’s masterpiece On Liberty. First, we assume the individual is the best judge of her own good. Second, whether or not the individual is the best judge of her own good, we rightly doubt that another individual (or assembly thereof) has the legitimate moral authority to substitute their judgment for the individual’s by force — especially in light of widespread disagreement about the nature of a good life. Third, truth is hard to come by, and none of us can be fully certain we’ve pinned it down. Allowing people to act on diverse opinions about morality (or rationality) broadens the search for truth about good lives by setting up a decentralized system of social laboratories where experiments in living succeed or fail in plain view. So, unless an action harms somebody else, people should be at liberty to satisfy their preferences, whether saintly or sinful, coolly rational or impulsively emotional.


11 thoughts on “Liberal Nicene Creed”

  1. This is pleasant, but this is flawed.

    The individual is not the best judge of his or her own good, because otherwise, multibillion dollar industries like the advertising industry, the education system and pretty much all of culture would not exist, or at least would not be profitable. The core principle of commercialism as we know it is that the judgement of the average individual is easily swayed, and easily swayed in ways that will allow you to impose your own judgement and your own advantage upon it.

    Force is very vague as a concept. There isn’t really a clear and solid dividing line between force and mere persuasion. Non-force based attacks, like deprivation of social standing, public humiliation and so on can often hurt much more than a beating. Adding on the concept of just retaliation to force, most societies were produced by force – would it be ok to forcibly take possessions from someone because his wealth was due to his ancestors’ past misdeeds? And besides, there are obvious issues where this is false. Few of us will think twice before physically stopping a small child from walking onto a road full of speeding cars.

  2. That’s an awful argument to make because nothing in its structure allows for a distinct treatment of, say, pot smoking and murder.

    You can’t stop murderers by force! You don’t know if it’s right. You have to right to intervene. There’s disagreement!

    are you unclear on “force”? Them come over here for a second, if you will…

  3. I’ve always taken definitions of force to go beyond merely inflicting physical pain. More like “Obey, or we will shoot you dead where you stand.” Not “I will thrash you with this stick if you don’t obey.”

    When police use mace or nightsticks or tasers, they’re backed up by real force. They don’t (officially) just rough you up and walk away.

    On the other hand, you can do a lot more damage to a person by wrecking their credit rating than by poking them with a stick.

  4. That there’s not a clear line separating persuasion and force doesn’t mean they have the same normative weight. Forcing somebody to take some action is somehow worse than merely persuading them to do so. Clearly, there are exceptions to this. In the case of small children, as you say, force is sometimes necessary.

    Ad agencies persuade individuals to take some action, and they may use psychological tricks to do so, but the individual can always choose not to be persuaded. There’s two ways an individual can make such a choice. He can take a claim by an advertiser head on and use reason to conclude on the merits or he can know that advertisers use certain tricks and train himself to not be fooled by them.

    Individuals forced to take some action, on the other hand, don’t have these luxuries. Here I’ll just second what swong said. “Force” isn’t just “taking a beating” its the threat of taking one’s freedoms away. If you somehow doubt this, think about how much less we respect rent-a-cops than we do state police. Why would this be?

    I don’t see how individuals aren’t able to take the best measure of their own well being even under the spell of advertising. Forgetting the fact that various advertisers compete for an individual’s attention and forgetting the fact that advertisers only have a slight effect on behavior even when they’re successful, how can others hope to know what actions are best for an individual? The existence of advertisers shows us that its possible for others — who know what actions they’d like an individual to take — to influence the individual’s actions, but those actions aren’t necessarily best for me.

  5. I meant to say that the exceptions to the fact that force is worse than persuasion can be identified by the cases where the individual can’t make the choice to be persuaded or not. Healthy adults wouldn’t qualify as exceptions. Children would.

  6. “I don’t see how individuals aren’t able to take the best measure of their own well being even under the spell of advertising.”

    Well, the point is that to some extent, what’s best for an individual is an objective thing, and so, if the individual is the best judge, then watching any amount of advertising should not change his judgment. I mean, seeing a fancy new car promoted by a handsome actor doesn’t change at all the facts regarding the cost of the car and and its performance/luxuriness, especially once the effects of the advert wears off. However, the advert does influence the viewer’s opinion, so we are left with the question: is the viewer’s original opinion the best judgment, or is the viewer’s current opinion the best judgment? If we believe that the advertisers are malicious and want the consumer to spend more money than really the car is worth, then clearly a strictly better judge of the individual’s interests would be someone who asked his opinion before he saw the advert, and reminded him of his original thoughts afterwards.

    As for force, I don’t really think choice is a good distinction. Financial ruin would be far more destructive to my freedom than a day in jail over the long term. And, as an example, if in one country 99.9% of people ‘freely’ choose to speak English, and in another 99.9% ‘freely’ choose to speak Chinese, how much choice do they have in that matter? The overwhelming cultural weight here brings the individual’s freedom to choose to effectively zero, perhaps more effectively and pervasively than any threat of jail or execution. Why is this comparatively ok?

    On some levels I’m playing the devil’s advocate, but I do want to make the point that strong coercion isn’t the exclusive domain of the government, and that maximising freedom may not be a well-posed problem.

  7. Got sources for advertising influence?

    I wouldn’t limit the scope of advertising to TV commercials and print ads. Package design, store product placement, and pricing schemes can have a major impact on which bottle of shampoo gets sold. I’d count all of these as advertising; none of them affects a product’s objective merits.

    Merely stocking something at eye level for a target audience can have a serious impact on sales. Shelf placement is a major consideration in retail, and suppliers fight hard to have their products placed in prime spots.

    Sorry… this is off-topic. Clearly, no one is Forcing you to buy this stuff.

  8. Source? Introspection: Crest, at worst, can make me buy some toothpaste that I don’t really like. In sum, there’s a lot of advertising, but much of it insignificant for any one person and much of it is cross purposes.

    FhnuZoag, you’re basically citing psychological evidence that people have hyperbolic discounting. This is evidence, maybe, that “long-term” selves are better judges than “short-term” selves of what is best for that individual. This is NOT evidence that others are better judges of what’s best for that individual, its evidence a different self within the individual is a better judge.

    Only Odysseus could have ordered his men to tie him to the mast.

  9. Interesting that you picked Crest by name. Why not Pepsodent, Arm & Hammer, or your local grocer’s generic brand? What is it about Crest that makes you choose that brand as something that any contemporary American should recognize?

    You’re in a foreign country and need toothpaste. Do you go for the $3 tube of “MagnificoDenteBlanche!” or the familiar-looking $3 tube of Crest? Do you read the labels to compare ingredients?

    Here’s an on-topic question: is paternalism possible without backing by mechanical force?

    I’m not sure we’re all using the same meaning of “force.” Mill’s piece seems to rally against coercion itself, not specific methods of coercion.

    Consider this scenario: You’re caught staying out after curfew. You get to choose your punishment:
    A) Ten lashes in the public square.
    B) Forfeit your college degree(s), permanently.

    Does the lack of physical force make choice B preferable to A? Or are they both nasty, unjust threats to keep you indoors after sundown?

  10. My point is not that advertising doesn’t have an effect. My point is that it has minimal effect.

    My point is not that persuasion is good good good and force is bad bad bad. My point was force, with minimal exceptions, is worse than persuasions. If we have a choice between the two, I’d rather a society (and I think you would too) which relies as much as possible on persuasion rather than force.

    BTW, there seems to be an underlining assumption that I’m only talking about government sanctioned force. I’m not. Brutal social opprobrium for behavior that effects no one but the one doing it is just as wrong as laws against it. Cross burning is wrong whether or not there’s a law against it.

    To answer your question, effective paternalism isn’t possible without threat of force (mechanical or not).

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