Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 1669–1688 | Cite as

Tolerant Paternalism: Pro-ethical Design as a Resolution of the Dilemma of Toleration

  • Luciano FloridiEmail author
Original Paper


Toleration is one of the fundamental principles that inform the design of a democratic and liberal society. Unfortunately, its adoption seems inconsistent with the adoption of paternalistically benevolent policies, which represent a valuable mechanism to improve individuals’ well-being. In this paper, I refer to this tension as the dilemma of toleration. The dilemma is not new. It arises when an agent A would like to be tolerant and respectful towards another agent B’s choices but, at the same time, A is altruistically concerned that a particular course of action would harm, or at least not improve, B’s well-being, so A would also like to be helpful and seeks to ensure that B does not pursue such course of action, for B’s sake and even against B’s consent. In the article, I clarify the specific nature of the dilemma and show that several forms of paternalism, including those based on ethics by design and structural nudging, may not be suitable to resolve it. I then argue that one form of paternalism, based on pro-ethical design, can be compatible with toleration and hence with the respect for B’s choices, by operating only at the informational and not at the structural level of a choice architecture. This provides a successful resolution of the dilemma, showing that tolerant paternalism is not an oxymoron but a viable approach to the design of a democratic and liberal society.


Ethics by design Liberalism Nudging Paternalism Toleration Value-sensitive design 



I discussed several versions of this article on many occasions and I am deeply indebted for their feedback to many colleagues and members of the audiences. In particular, I wish to thank Andrew A. Adams, Pompeu Casanovas, Stephen Clarke, Ralph Schroeder and above all Massimo Durante and Ugo Pagallo, for their insightful comments and the opportunities they kindly provided to discuss the ideas presented in this article. The following meetings were especially useful for discussing and improving the final version: an invited talk at The Ethical and Legal Aspects of Digital Security Special Workshop on Digital Security and Data Protection (Paris, 29 November 2013); a presentation discussed during a Master Class Seminar at the Oxford Internet Institute (Oxford, 10 June 2014); an invited talk at the University of Turin, Faculty of Law, Ph.D. program (Turin, 26–27 June 2014); and a keynote at the Asian Privacy Scholars Network, 4th International Conference, Meiji University (Tokyo, 10–11 July 2014). Three anonymous reviewers offered remarkably detailed, long and insightful comments on a previous draft, and this version is much better thanks to them. I am very grateful for their time and scholarship. David Sutcliffe carefully copyedited and commented on the last draft of this paper, improving it substantially.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oxford Internet InstituteUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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