On the Possibility (and Acceptability) of Paternalism towards Future People


This article argues that it is possible to act paternalistically towards future people, as long as the following requirements are met: (1) the act/choice is not such that it will prevent the future person from coming into existence; (2) the action/choice is such that it can be taken by the future person herself without significant disadvantage to her; and (3) the act/choice is not such that there is significant uncertainty at the time of choice about the preferences of the future person. I argue that the possibility of acting paternalistically towards future people is of practical as well as theoretical importance. This is true since some of the policies we might choose to pursue on behalf of future people are paternalistic, in particular constitutional policies implemented because we do not trust future people to choose wisely. I end the paper by pointing out why it is valuable to approach intergenerational issues through both the paternalistic prism and the prism of theories of justice.

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  1. 1.

    See, for instance, Sikora and Barry (1978), Parfit (1984), Arrhenius (2000), Gosseries and Meyer (2009).

  2. 2.

    Zwarthoed (2016) discusses, though, a tangential issue when she considers whether the present generation should preserve plants, animals and other organisms for future people. Whereas she discusses the conditions for future people’s autonomy, I discuss whether future people can be treated paternalistically. For a discussion of a related topic - paternalism towards children - see Mullin (2014).

  3. 3.

    Suppose there is ‘no reason to attribute fundamental moral importance to someone’s location in time. A person’s place in time is not, in itself, the right kind of feature of a person to affect his/her entitlements’ (Caney 2014: 324). If this is true, we might infer that to the extent that it is wrong to act paternalistically towards contemporary people, it is wrong to act paternalistically towards future people.

  4. 4.

    I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for discussion on these requirements.

  5. 5.

    For discussion on how to define paternalism, see Grill (2009: 5–15) and Scoccia (2018).

  6. 6.

    Because paternalism is mostly discussed in relation to cases where the paternalised is autonomous at the time of the act, most definitions are underspecified in terms of when the paternalised must be autonomous for the act to be paternalistic. This is true of Shiffrin’s definition as well, as is evident in Conditions (a) and (c). It is unclear whether we should read (a) and (c) as saying that the paternalised must be autonomous now, or must have legitimate control now (narrow reading), or whether it is sufficient for an act to be paternalistic that the paternalised becomes autonomous at some future point or acquires legitimate control later (wide reading). These two – autonomy and legitimate control – can diverge. This is true of cases in which I act so that a presently autonomous person is affected in the future in an area in which she then, but not now, has legitimate control. For instance, I introduce safety features in a machine that I believe you will later acquire. You have no legitimate control over the machine presently, nor do you have any preferences regarding it, but you will later resent that I introduced these features. I believe that acts that satisfy the wide reading are paternalistic as well, as I will argue in the next section. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for discussion on this.

  7. 7.

    This definition entails that it is possible to act paternalistically towards an agent who has not even considered the matter the paternaliser intervenes in, or established an intention (Shiffrin 2000: 214). Shiffrin further notes that her account does not, by definition, imply that paternalism is necessarily all-things-considered wrong. She continues: ‘It may follow from the account’s appeal to matters legitimately within an agent’s control that paternalism, so understood, is pro tanto morally problematic’ (Shiffrin 2000: 220, n. 25).

  8. 8.

    For another motivational account of paternalism, see Quong (2010).

  9. 9.

    Throughout the article, I take ‘paternalised’ to mean the person that is acted paternalistically towards, whereas I take ‘paternaliser’ to mean the person acting paternalistically.

  10. 10.

    De Marneffe (2006) argues that there is a tension in Shiffrin’s position. One the one hand, Shiffrin’s account is motivational, which means that belief or intent is sufficient for an act to be paternalistic. On the other hand, she assumes that the (actual) presence of non-paternalistic justifications renders otherwise objectionable paternalistic actions non-objectionable (p. 71). On de Marneffe’s account sharing similar problems, see Grill (2015).

  11. 11.

    My argument, that it is possible to act paternalistically towards future people, applies, e.g., to Dworkin’s definition of paternalism as well; see Footnote 19.

  12. 12.

    This illustrates a significant difference between paternalism towards contemporary people and paternalism towards future people. Whereas it is possible that it is a hard fact when we act paternalistically towards a contemporary person – as it does not necessarily depend on a certain kind of fact obtaining in the future – it is impossible for paternalism towards a future person to be a hard fact.

  13. 13.

    Cp. ‘the establishment of the American republic occurred with the Declaration of Independence even if there never would have been a republic if the Americans had lost the War of Independence’.

  14. 14.

    I have stipulated the case such that the foetus is six weeks old in order to show that the entity involved in this case is not yet a person. If one believes, instead, that a six-week-old foetus is already a person, one could just assume that the foetus in this case is one or two weeks old instead.

  15. 15.

    Note that less than 100% will do as well. Usually when we ask a person what she wants, there are uncertainties as to whether the person has understood the question correctly or responds honestly; that is, even in such a case we are not 100% sure about what the person wants.

  16. 16.

    Assuming that only one person will develop from the foetus.

  17. 17.

    Note that this is not a ‘non-identity case’ in which the future person’s existence is dependent on Mary drinking the red wine. If it were a ‘non-identity case’ it seems fair to assume that the future person might have preferred, all things considered, that Mary consumed the red wine. For discussion on non-identity cases, see Parfit (1984), Chapter 16.

  18. 18.

    I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for discussion on this.

  19. 19.

    This is not legally possible, but we can imagine that it would be.

  20. 20.

    Note that Lola acts paternalistically on Dworkin’s definition of paternalism. According to Dworkin, A acts paternalistically towards B by doing (omitting) Z if and only if: (i) Z (or its omission) interferes with the liberty or autonomy of B; (ii) A does so without the consent of B; (iii) A does so only because A believes Z will improve the welfare of B (where this includes preventing his welfare from diminishing), or in some way promote the interests, values or good of B (Dworkin 2017). Lola (i) interferes with the autonomy of Kim by forcing her to do military service; (ii) does so without Kim’s consent; and (iii) signs Kim up for military service only because she believes it will improve Kim’s welfare.

  21. 21.

    To be clear, as long as they also satisfy condition (1) and (3).

  22. 22.

    I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.

  23. 23.

    To be clear, I do so since Military Conscription satisfies (1), (2) and (3). With regard to (1), that Lola signs Kim up for military service does not prevent Kim from becoming autonomous. We have already seen that (2) and (3) are satisfied.

  24. 24.

    As Shiffrin notes, her account is underspecified: ‘given (c) a full account of paternalism will depend on an account of what sorts of interests and matters legitimately lie within an agent’s control’ (Shiffrin 2000: 218). For the purposes of this paper, I will not give a complete account of which matters legitimately lie within an agent’s control, but assume that whether or not Lola should do military service once she turns 19 is for her, and not her mother, to decide.

  25. 25.

    Note that this is an example of a case (like Shiffrin’s credit card example) in which one behaves paternalistically by acting ‘before an agent has considered a matter or established an intention’ (Shiffrin 2000: 214).

  26. 26.

    My main argument – that it is possible to act paternalistically towards future people – does not commit me to a particular view of whether it is as wrong to act with potentially paternalistic consequences as it is to act with actually paternalistic consequences. I do not want to commit to a particular answer in this paper, but I do want to note that we can compare acting with actually paternalistic consequences/potentially paternalistic consequences to murder/attempted murder. For those who believe that attempted murder is as morally wrong as murder, it is as morally wrong to act with potentially paternalistic consequences as it is to act with actually paternalistic consequences. For those who believe that there is a moral difference between murder and attempted murder, this is not the case. This is furthermore to say that there is a link to the debate between actualism and expectism – whether actual or expected outcomes determine the moral status of actions. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for discussion on this.

  27. 27.

    In the discussion that follows, I take constitutional policies to mean policies that require a significant majority (e.g., three-fourths of parliament) to be amended. Elster calls constitutional policies a Ulysses strategy as contemporary people ‘precommit later generations’ (Elster 1979: 94).

  28. 28.

    Cp. Gosseries (2008): ‘… the more we rely on constitutions – as opposed to less rigid legal instruments – the more we threaten the generational sovereignty of future generations’ (Gosseries 2008: 32).

  29. 29.

    I take it that the same is true of paternalistic policies aimed at presently autonomous individuals. That is, even if such a policy, e.g. a seat belt law, is paternalistic and for this reason pro tanto wrong, it is not (at least most people do not believe it to be) wrong all things considered.

  30. 30.

    I do not want to suggest that all restrictive actions that help secure future autonomy are thereby justified. Consider forcing adult people to educate themselves in order to secure their future autonomy. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for discussion on this.

  31. 31.

    Luck egalitarians affirm the claim that ‘it is unjust if some people are worse off than others through their bad luck’ (Lippert-Rasmussen 2016: 1). For a thorough discussion of luck egalitarianism, see Lippert-Rasmussen (2016).


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I would like to thank Andreas Albertsen, Göran Duus-Otterström, Sune Lægaard, Lasse Nielsen, Tore Vincents Olsen, Jens Damgaard Thaysen, Fabio Wolkenstein and two anonymous reviewers for Ethical Theory and Moral Practice for comments on previous versions of this paper. I am especially grateful to my two supervisors, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen and Søren Flinch Midtgaard, for reading and commenting on several previous versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Andreas Bengtson.

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Bengtson, A. On the Possibility (and Acceptability) of Paternalism towards Future People. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 13–25 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-018-9969-4

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  • Paternalism
  • Future people
  • Intergenerational obligations
  • Constitutional policies