Leela and Alcazar
Featured image: In Futurama S2E13, inspired by sitcom Married with Children, Leela (left) romantically involves herself with another cyclops, Alcazar (right). Alcazar is the first cyclops Leela had ever met. Sadly, the relationship seems to become abusive. But an impressionable Leela persists within it because of Alcazar's race. So Leela's friends intervene to 'save' her. But were they morally right to do so? Who are they to say what's best for her? (Leela actually does the same to Fry in S3E15, when she actively severs him from his artificially designed relationship with a robot version of Lucy Liu.) (20th Century Fox Television)

Welcome to the topic of paternalistic intervention. This concept has nothing to do with fathers—or even men (necessarily). Rather, paternalistic intervention is a philosophical concept which applies when an external agent (e.g. a friend or a government) interferes with your affairs against your will. However, their intervention is motivated by your best interests.

Paternalistic intervention creates tonnes of fascinating dilemmas. It’s a form of conflict, whereby one agent is trying to undermine another’s will with their will. Philosophical questions about it, then, are moral and political in nature because they concern how best to resolve issues between people by protecting freedoms which are worth having and by eliminating cruel exercises of authority: they concern oppression.

The interesting question is then: what freedoms are worth having?

Don't tell us what to do

Rage Against The Machine
'F*** you, I won't do what you tell me, 'F*** you, I won't do what you tell me …' (Rage Against The Machine/Instagram)

Political states, families, friends, teachers, and even strangers regularly intervene with our affairs.

Generally, however, we don’t like our affairs being meddled with. When they are we fall into a state of indignancy: these are our affairs, not theirs. They can’t do something on our behalves without our consent because that’s immoral.

Or is it? For perhaps freedom isn’t what it’s made out to be and its fundamental importance is overstated.

Tweet by Laura Perrins
Is freedom really that important? Libertarians, liberals, and free-market capitalists are good examples of people who value freedom comparatively highly but in their own nuanced ways. A politician who thinks freedom is will base many of their policies on concepts of autonomy and liberty by prioritising trust and responsibility in individual decision-making—not just by conferring power to citizens but to collectives, such as businesses, too. But, for good reasons, all conferred powers will have legal limits. (Source)

We all should be used to interference: governments intervene by implementing new policies all the time. For example, they act to lower the use of tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs, betting machines, and toxic phone apps. They legally oblige us to wear seatbelts and require elderly people’s driving skills to be retested at regular intervals, even though we’re willing to accept the risks of not doing so.

Why do governments intervene? Generally, in addition to protecting some sense of justice, they further the agenda of public health services which aim to improve physical and mental health. The same applies to individuals as well as collective entities.

If, on one hand, many interventions against people’s wills are oppressive, and if, on the other, many interventions are fair, how do we decide what acts are which?

Justifying intervention

Sugar in Pepsi
Many governments worldwide impose significant levies on citizens who purchase sugary soft drinks. They do so because we, as free individuals, can't be trusted to not cause damage to ourselves and others, even though we're willing to pay the individual price of unrestricted individual gluttony. If we agree with this policy, we, in principle, support at least some forms of intervention—something which, upon analysis, is more appealing than it first sounds. (Source)

Assuming an intervention is legal, we might say that it is also fair when it is made in someone’s best interests.

But what are ‘best interests’? Moreover, who is right about them? It’s hard to say.

In some scenarios, such as those such as those under the jurisdiction of the UK’s Mental Health Act 1983, the solution is clear-cut because the main subject lacks the capacity to be fully rational and look after themselves. That is, they can’t make a strong case for what their will is or they can’t think straight or think at all. Maybe the subject is too young to make competently made decisions; and, as such, their parent can fairly decide that it’s best that they don’t eat dirt, that they don’t use certain websites, that they can’t get their ears pierced, and that they must go to a certain school. (Interestingly, though, a 10-year-old can be put under trial as an adult for murder and, therefore, be responsible for themselves in many other ways.)

This is a familiar discussion in the medical world, where patients can lose the right to choose a course of action if they can’t give adequate consent. That is, to receive certain medical attention according to their own will (e.g. to be treated with a new drug, to undergo a CT scan with radiation, or to donate an organ), they have to be seen as making voluntary and informed decisions by demonstrating to medical professionals that they understand the risks and the benefits of the procedure. However, if their capacity to reach such a decision is deemed inadequate or under threat—say, because they are too mentally ill—their consent is either not needed or is handed over to someone else, legally overpowering whatever their immediate wishes, however ill-formed, are. Is that really fair?

Better Call Saul
'What he wants and what he needs are two very different things, Jimmy … He is [a danger to himself]. Coleman lanterns indoors? A camp stove? He could burn his house down. And then you're looking at a commitment of 10 to 20 years. What if—? What if he just hurts himself in a household accident? How does he call for help? You have the power to help your brother. Truly help him. Ignoring this won't make it go away.' — Dr Cruz (Clea DuVall), Better Call Saul S1E5 and S2E10, implores Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to paternalistically intervene with the affairs of his electricity-fearing brother, Chuck, by agreeing to section him. Chuck's mental health is clinically deteriorating yet he is adamant about not needing or wanting help. He is a sharp and intelligent lawyer who can reason arguments well; but does he show enough capacity to warrant his own 'qualified' decision-making? Paternalistic intervention can't be justified if the main subject, who is rational, does not. (Sony Pictures)

In other scenarios—when the subject feels undermined and they form dissent with a sufficient faculty of reason—a conflict is created between two parties claiming to be right about one person’s best interests.

We need a form of justification for our interventions: moral boundaries.


Deontey Wilder
Boxer Deontay Wilder was livid with his trainer, Mark Breland, at the climax of his fight with Tyson Fury. Breland threw in the towel during the seventh round. When a trainer throws in the towel they paternalistically intervene with their boxer's state of affairs, a right which is enshrined in boxing law and consented to by boxers. But is this sacred principle, designed to protect the boxer's health, just? Breland was concerned about Wilder's ability to continue safely. But Wilder, with the pride and courage to continue with the fight, vehemently contested that it was in his best interests to continue. So who was right about Wilder's best interests? What was the most compassionate option? (EPA)

‘I’m doing this for your own good!’ Says the parent to their child …

There are many ways to build a case for paternalistic intervention. One is predicated on wellbeing (e.g. through some measure of health, safety, and happiness). People frequently pose dangers to themselves—willingly! Often they risk their own lives; and even though they’re willing to take the risk at one moment, they might not even have a chance to regret it afterwards. So, one might say, we can justify interfering with someone’s affairs now in favour of their future wellbeing, as, for example, a parent does by enforcing a curfew on a teenager to ensure their safety.

But, in the general case, we need to resolve conflicts at the times of disagreements. Take someone who is really drunk. They tend to make detrimental assessments about how much they want to drink in a night, who to talk to, how long to stay out for, and how to get home. Quite commendably, friends sometimes step in. For example, they drag their friend out of the bar and put them into a taxi to ensure they’re on their way to safety.

However, while inebriated friends can be complicit during their drunken sagas and then thankful afterwards, they can also be defiant in the face of attempted interventions: they profess themselves to be ‘perfectly fine’ and insist on continuing drinking and vehemently refuse to enter the taxi, evading the intervention and exposing themselves to harm.

Unless interventions are successful, forgiven, or forgotten about (e.g. after a kebab and a sleep), situations meet real harm or can sour and fester and still require action. What can and can’t we do?

Man on a ledge
There are more question marks yet. Take suicide, too. It is and has been illegal in many countries for long periods of time. If we drag someone safely inside from a window ledge, we believe in keeping them alive as starting point for their interests. This applies to giving them more love and support or sometimes medical attention to bring their reasoning in line with our own: that staying alive is the correct path. The overall idea is that we'd be doing what's right for them. In many cases this seems just, for their wellbeing will be returned in some kind of compassionate investment. But keeping someone alive can also be controversial, especially for people who are suffering incredibly (e.g. at the end of their life). Who are we to forcefully disagree with someone's wishes? (Summit Entertainment)

A more-fundamental problem arises, too, when no one, including the person whose wellbeing is being put under the microscope, has certainty about what will happen, though they may feel like they verily know their best interests in a moment. This is politically troublesome, for lawmakers need to come up with strict lines for us to walk between.

Clearly, we require some more philosophical finessing.

An argument of rights

Full-face veil
In 2011 France became the first European country to ban full-face Islamic veils in public places. President Sarkozy declared them 'not welcome' because he claimed they represent an affront to France's security and secular and cultural values. But the attack goes deeper than that: full-face veils are considered sexist by some since women are culturally forced to wear them. The European Court of Human Rights heard a case brought against France's government ban on 2nd July 2014 by a 24-year-old French woman who argued that the ban violated her freedom of religion and expression. While the Court upheld the ban, it shows us that she, like many others, believes she freely chooses to wear it. In a battle between a country's collective values and an individual's 'freedom', who ought to win? Is banning the full-face veil good, somehow, for France's Muslim population? (Agencies)

Let’s invert the question and ask now: when does intervention go too far?

While the common view is to see the rightness or wrongness of paternalistic intervention through the lens of wellbeing, for some ‘paternalism’ is always wrong. With this different and more-radical approach humans are treated as agents with bundles of rights that must be left untouched, which includes the right to make certain decisions ‘autonomously’.

In the case of full-face veils, for example, the Human Rights Watch called their ban in France an interference of women’s rights. Women, they claim, should have the right to freely express themselves. However, the counterargument goes, this position presupposes that the right to wear a full-face veil is an essential right that shouldn’t be overridden by other important aspects of society (e.g. cultural cohesion and security) while potentially supporting oppressive cultures which strip women of many basic liberties upon their ill-informed or coerced consent.

In a similar sanctuary of rights, philosopher Robert Nozick, building on the work of John Locke, argued for the protection of economic rights at the foundations of a just society. These rights provide the basis for assessing and constraining not only the actions of individuals and groups but also the conduct of political and legal institutions and their marriage through social contracts. Thus the entirety of a just society is founded on the integrity of individual liberty.

Everyone owns themselves and any materials they fairly acquire, according to Nozick. These resources do not belong to the state but to us—a position which permits disproportionate wealth accumulation. It would be morally wrong to take each of our rights to a free life away from us, through interventions such as income taxation and unconsented organ donations, because our money and our organs were rightfully transferred to us (even if fortune played a large role in their transfers).

Same-sex marriage cake
Paternalistic intervention is attempted and resisted on freedoms' grounds in many forms. Pictured, right, are the Christian owners of a bakery in Northern Ireland who refused to make a cake emblazoned with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage. Their freedom of conscience was protected since their refusal was not deemed discriminatory. Similarly, medics can refuse to perform abortions (but not always), some religious symbols can be worn at work, and patients can refuse to accept blood transfusions. However, freedom isn't everything—something which is demonstrated by our valuing of other aspects of civilized society. Compulsory vaccinations, for example, have been considered for the sake of public health in the UK. Discussions were surely catalysed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Pixel 8000/Getty Images)

So interfering with someone else’s affairs is acceptable if there is justice in the intervention—say, if certain rights are embodied in freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, or freedom to earn 1 billion trillion dollars untaxed. Then—and only then—is paternalistic intervention legitimate as per philosophical notions of justice.

Do we have a coherent notion of paternalistic intervention, then? The options discussed so far offer two very different approaches: either (i) we support an argument to intervene in someone’s life to protect or improve their wellbeing or (ii) we support an argument to intervene in someone’s life if it doesn’t contravene their rights.

(i) has major downfalls in virtue of the fact that interventions can be legal and made with good intent; however, meddling can be totally awry with respect to how the subject will actually feel (e.g. after forcing them into arranged marriage), while knowledge of an attempted intervention can further upset them (e.g. after a family member attempts to section them). Even if we could manipulate people for the good of their wellbeing without their knowing, we can’t guarantee favourable results. Lawmakers, then, have to accommodate uncertainty in law (e.g. to determine whether interventions are well-meaning prior to altercations involving assault).

(ii) faces all kinds of problems, too. Primarily, it won’t facilitate certain interventions by external agents (e.g. good friends, public health bodies, governments). It overly trusts individual judgement by hallowing the subject’s fundamental rights, whatever they really are.

Therefore, we have no proper way to legislate activity between people in ways that respect the philosophical nature of the problem. Fundamentally, there is an unknown answer to a known question—a vintage result for philosophy, I know—but, nevertheless, this unknown will help push us towards fair intervention.

The absurdity of people

Pro-smoking propaganda aimed at women
It has been claimed that the desire to smoke cigarettes was programmed into women, as sexualised symbols of rebellion, starting in 1920s America. While women felt empowered when they smoked, they were being manipulated by crafty men into purchasing their own phallic objects—objects which contained addictive and harmful substances. How real, then, were their desires? Weren't their urges just the products of a big industry, hungry for their money and powerful enough to attain it? But it's not just women of times gone by: we are all too easily encouraged to act out unconscious emotional desires as happiness machines under the control of strategists and public-relations experts; to be misled and slyly subverted; to be content with docility and at the whim of illusory, malleable, and transitory desires; to be susceptible to control as consumers and as political subjects by greedy and populist demagogues; to embrace the irrational enemy within: to be the holders of an illusory kind of freedom.

The most-fundamental problem, I think, is that no one, including the person whose affairs are being interfered with, knows with certainty what the best course of action is.

The task, which philosophers have been grappling with for centuries, is coming up with a way to define an authentic motivation, which requires a cogent theory of autonomy. Thus we should ask: how do we know when someone is acting autonomously with respect to their sincerely held values? In the case of propaganda directed specifically at women to encourage them to smoke: how do we distinguish between a woman’s ‘artificial’ desire to smoke a cigarette and their ‘true’ desire to smoke a cigarette rebelliously or ease her stress levels? Are they qualitatively different if they’re ‘authentic’? But what warrants ‘authentic’? This label presupposes that we truly and fundamentally know our ‘true selves’ (if they exist).

People ‘authentically’ choose paths that undermine not just their wellbeing but their freedoms all the time. For example, many women seemingly choose to understand self-worth via astronomical beauty standards and the reactions of others, who internalise the same standards. There is a threat, sure: the price of nonconformity to contrived notions of femininity is social sanctioning. But many choose not to exit their toxic environments but to actively participate in them, where this environment offers low self-worth assessments anyway.

FGM instrument
Pictured: A homemade tool used in Uganda for female genital mutilation (FGM). While the vast majority of FGM cases are performed on young, nonconsenting girls and violate their rights, their autonomy, and their medical wellbeing, some adult women choose to undergo FGM 'autonomously', according to one philosopher. Why would anybody choose to do that? With the skill of self-discovery, these women provide 'substantive reasons' for the procedure (e.g. to complete a test of endurance prior to labour pains and to demonstrate morally appropriate fertility) and the burden is on us to deny their autonomy. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Elsewhere, many right-wing women in the United States actively vote against their own rights, while people of all colours and creeds choose to be in unhealthy relationships and jobs.

Is this what ‘best interests’ look like? Do we disregard their absurdity? That’s a dangerous path, according to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who expounded an extremely influential worry: namely, we can’t know someone’s ‘true purposes’, only second-guess them; and if we attempt to intervene, we open the door to political oppression. Forcing someone to act in a certain way (e.g. by illegalising their full-face veil) because we think it’s in accordance with their ‘real’, free selves is draconian and unjustified.

'Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their "real" selves.' — Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty

But now, in a stalemate, the good person is prohibited from helping a friend who suffers from an inability to look after their own future interests. For the sake of questionable autonomy, for the sake of absurdity—we—and maybe they—are condemned.

The ultimate unknown

Do our motivations arise by chance?

Perhaps no motivation can be defined separately from that which it had been informed by.

So do we exist separately from our external world? Do we know ourselves? If we don’t, can others fairly intervene to claim what’s best …

This is unsteady but important territory.

If neither assessment of wellbeing nor delineation of rights can be used to justify intervention, we are limited to being descriptive and case-dependent—blunt and weak in the face of systematic oppression.

An interesting case study

The following excepts are taken from a 2019 article on the BBC.

‘In 2017, freelance writer Tom de Castella noticed an elderly woman and her son living on a bench in south London. He discovered they had already been there for two years … which was puzzling. Why hadn’t anyone done anything to help them? Why did everyone accept it as normal? The more he investigated, the stranger it seemed.

‘I asked if she was happy here. A flicker of annoyance spread across her face. Was I intruding?

‘“My personal opinion is that they need to be taken into care,” [another man, who worked near to the mother and son,] says. “Who would want to live like that? Maybe a day if you really had to but four-and-a-half years?”

‘I tell [the man] that the well-placed sources say they have no serious mental health problems and ask if he’s surprised. He pauses, apparently taken aback. “Very much, very much.” [Housing has been made available, too.]

‘I began by thinking that something must be done. I instinctively felt that the mother and son needed help. Now I know they don’t want to be moved, and that they may not be breaking the law, I find myself turning to another question that can no longer be dodged. Are they capable of making a decision in their best interests?

‘By law a person lacks mental capacity if they cannot do one of the following four things: understand, remember, communicate or weigh up information.

‘I talk to two well-placed sources. They say the pair have not been found to have any serious mental health issue. The mother and son see the bench as their home, the sources tell me. They like being part of the community, having social contact, chatting to passers-by and they would not feel safe living in a flat.

‘When the council unscrewed their bench in 2014 it said it was acting in the mother and son’s best interests. Now it has concluded that it is in their best interest to leave them as they are. It says it respects their choice, but perhaps it’s less a choice than a feeling that moving into a flat would be impossibly difficult? Perhaps both sides, in their own ways, are taking the path of least resistance?

‘If the mother or her son were to become seriously ill or die the community would surely blame itself for doing nothing. But for now it remains numbed to the strange permanence of their blue plastic shelter.’

Read the full story here.