Paternalism and Populations

Tom Walker

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It is relatively uncontroversial that some public health policies are paternalistic. Furthermore, that they are paternalistic is often taken to show that they are morally wrong. In this article I challenge this position. The article starts by arguing that given standard definitions of paternalism it is unclear why such policies count as paternalistic. Whilst it might appear that they impose restrictions on what individuals can, or cannot, do for their own good, this is not the case. The reason for this is that whilst public health policies focus on achieving benefits at a population or group level, the imposition is made at the level of the individual. If we are to retain the idea that such policies are paternalistic we must characterize them in such a way that both the benefit and imposition are at the same level: either that of the individual or that of the group. I argue that in many cases moving to the group level is the only plausible option. However, if we move to the group level, the features that make a policy paternalistic will not, unlike in those cases where paternalism is targeted at an individual, make the policy morally wrong.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-54
Number of pages9
JournalPublic Health Ethics
Issue number1
Early online date15 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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