Friday, October 23, 2009

Why is it wrong to coerce people for their own good?

In his recent book, “What is good and why”, Richard Kraut argues that pure antipaternalism is in a weak position because it cannot say why it is wrong to coerce someone to prevent him from doing himself harm. I think there is a very good reason why coercion is wrong under such circumstances, but first I want to quote some passages that I agree with.

I particularly like the following passages that seem to me to capture the developmental approach to well-being presented in the book:
“For human beings, no less that other living things, it is always good to flourish; and if a human being is flourishing in all ways, both physical and psychological, he is doing very well indeed” (p. 133).

“Speaking in the broadest possible terms, there is one kind of life that is best for all human beings – a life of flourishing, one that follows a pattern of psychological and physical growth filled with enjoyment. But it is no less true that the concrete realization of such a pattern differs enormously from one person to another” (p. 140).

Having recognized the importance of individual differences, it is hardly surprising that Kraut is quite positive about the value of autonomy to human flourishing: “Since our well-being consists in the exercise of our powers, and among these powers are those involved in reasoned choice, it is bad for us when matters that we can decide about, on our own, and take pleasure in controlling are taken out of our control” (p. 197). In the end, however, his endorsement of autonomy is qualified: “Important as it is, autonomy is only one good among many, and its value must not be exaggerated” (p. 201). Kraut suggests that since people often make poor choices about matters such as marriage partners we can’t be dogmatic that institutions such as arranged marriages are never good for people.

It seems to me that the problem here is that the author’s discussion of autonomy places too much emphasis on exercising the powers to make choices rather than on self-direction and responsibility. We do not harm our chances of flourishing by seeking advice in order to augment our limited capacity for reasoned choice when making important decisions. But a person can hardly be said to be fully flourishing if important personal decisions are taken out of her control, so that she does not bear responsibility for them.

This brings me to antipaternalism. Kraut writes: “There is no merit in the general idea that we should all be allowed to do whatever we choose. So why suppose that there is some merit in the idea that an adult should not be coerced, when the grounds for doing so appeal solely to his well-being? Why is that, in principle, never a good enough reason for coercion? Pure antipaternalism cannot advert to the bad consequences that would occur were this the only basis for bypassing someone’s will. It must say instead that this is simply wrong, but it cannot say why it is wrong” (p. 237).

In my view it is wrong to coerce a person to prevent him from doing himself harm simply because this is inconsistent with living in peace with him. In a good society coercion would be strictly limited to situations where it is necessary to prevent the actions of different individuals from interfering with each other. As I argued in my last post, if we perceive living in peace to be a necessary condition for a good society then we must accept the primacy of liberty.

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