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Governing [through] Autonomy. The Moral and Legal Limits of “Soft Paternalism”

Abstract

Legal restrictions of the right to self-determination increasingly pretend to be compatible with the liberal concept of autonomy: they act upon a ‘soft’ or autonomy-orientated paternalistic rationale. Conventional liberal critique of paternalism turns out to be insensitive to the intricate normative problems following from ‘soft’ or ‘libertarian’ paternalism. In fact, these autonomy-oriented forms of paternalism could actually be even more problematic and may infringe liberty rights even more intensely than hard paternalistic regulation. This paper contributes to the systematic differentiation of soft and hard paternalism by discussing the (legal) concept of autonomy and elaborates the moral and legal limits of autonomy-orientated paternalism.

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Notes

  1. See Dworkin 1983, p. 20: “Intervention in a person’s liberty of action is justified by reasons referring exclusively to the welfare, good, happiness, needs, interests, or values of the person being coerced.” It should be noted in particular that Dworkin differentiates between autonomy and liberty of action and is content with intervention in the latter, a question we will return to.

  2. For example, the German transplantation law does not directly forbid citizens to donate an organ to an unrelated person, but the doctor who removes the organ with the donor’s consent is punishable under law (§ 8 Abs. 1 TPG).

  3. Cf. First 2005 for Body Identity Integrity Syndrome.

  4. Cf. Noll 1955, 74 f.; Jescheck and Weigend 1996. See fundamentally Raz 1986, 188 ff. 191.

  5. Rulings of the German Constitutional Court (BVerfGE) vol. 120 (2008), p. 224 (confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, Ruling 43547/08, April 12, 2012). For the problematics of legal moralism, cf. particularly the dissenting opinion of Judge Hassemer, ibidem, marg. 99.

  6. John Stuart Mill already meant his antipaternalistic theory “to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties”. He exempted children, adolescents, those with defective reflective faculties, including, by the way, “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage“ (Mill 1992, 13). There are authors who state, as we do, that even if a person’s stated preferences do not derive from a substantially autonomous choice, the act of overriding these preferences is still paternalistic (cf. Childress 1982; Kleinig 1983, pp. 6–14; VanDeVeer 1986, pp. 16–40, Schöne-Seifert 2009). There has, however, been no systematic treatment of the justifiability of these forms of ‘soft’ paternalism so far.

  7. Cf. Feinberg 1971, 113, 116: “substantially non-voluntary conduct”, also Beauchamp and Childress 2009, 210.

  8. In Germany, e.g. § 8 Abs. 1 Transplantation Act (18 years); § 2 Castration Act (25 years).

  9. Beauchamp 1977, 67; idem, 2009, 80, 83 (“paternalism seizes decision-making authority by overriding a person’s autonomous choice“ / “only strong paternalism qualifies as paternalism“; italics TG and BFM); Quante 2002, 308 ff.

  10. Beauchamp and Childress 2009, p. 210: “soft paternalism does not involve a real conflict between the principles of respect for autonomy and beneficence”.

  11. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

  12. U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), Art. 1 II, 12 II and 12 IV 2.

  13. § 1901 BGB (Germany).

  14. Motivation of the German Parliament, BT-DrS., p. 11/4528, p. 67. Advance directives prevail, though (§ 1901a BGB Germany).

  15. § 1904 BGB (Germany).

  16. Rulings of the German Constitutional Court (BVerfGE), vol. 128, p. 282, marg. 42 and 55.

  17. In German law, for example, there are differentiated procedural solutions for open-ended consultation processes through boards of privileged consultation and decision-making bodies (such as commissions for living organ donation in transplantation law and ethics commissions in the area of clinical pharmacological testing) as well as the obligation to consult guardianship courts, cf. Saliger 2003, 1–170, Fateh-Moghadam 2003, 245–257; Fateh-Moghadam and Atzeni 2009.

  18. Joel Feinberg is stricter in this regard: “When consent to a given kind of dangerous conduct is so rare and unlikely that it would hardly ever be given unless in ignorance, under coercive pressure, or because of impaired faculties, then a legislature might simply ban it on the basis of the harm-to-others principle, assuming for all practical purposes that consent to that kind of agreement never is voluntary enough. Such a rationale avoids (hard) paternalism and accords with the liberal’s motivation” (Feinberg 1986, p. 174).

  19. Sunstein 2005; Van Aaken 2007; Sunstein & Thaler 2003a, 138, who insist that their version of paternalism is ‘soft’ paternalism, see Thaler & Sunstein 2009, p. 6.

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Fateh-Moghadam, B., Gutmann, T. Governing [through] Autonomy. The Moral and Legal Limits of “Soft Paternalism”. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 17, 383–397 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-013-9450-3

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Keywords

  • Autonomy
  • Soft paternalism
  • Weak paternalism
  • Autonomy-oriented paternalism
  • Libertarian paternalism