Monday, February 14, 2011

Social Obligations, Or How You Can Back Into Paternalism Without Trying

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues an anti-paternalist position. That is, he says we cannot prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection. But he also says that we have the right to prohibit other people from engaging in activities which impose an undue risk on ourselves. I believe these two positions are inconsistent. [As reviewers have pointed out, I'm not showing there's an inconsistency; and there isn't one. Rather, I'm concerned whether there's an aspect of social life that Nozick didn't seem to consider which could undermine the analysis.]

Nozick's argument assumes that the individual is the basic unit of social life. However, as I have argued elsewhere, I think it's more useful to take the household as the basic unit instead. We are born into families, and we tend to grow up, live, and die in them. Even when we reject our families and all family ties, we still naturally form "households" in our new homes. College roommates, gay couples, touring rock bands—these are all examples of how even when we don't live in traditional family structure, we still have a penchant for community living (the anthropologist is always quick to point out that "the household" is socially defined). It's an essential part of being a social human being.

Whether we like it or not, this communal living creates obligations on us. Parents obviously have duties to their children. We believe roommates should take care of each other. Figuring out the exact nature of these "family/community living" duties is difficult, but we can't deny there are duties.

Now imagine we see a father drinking too much. The anti-paternalist would say we do not have the right to interfere if he is fully aware of the risks of his actions: not drinking may be in the father's own best interest, but we have no right to stop him. However, because the father has a child, and because that child is so dependent on him, the drinking affects the child too. A drunkard father may raise his kids well, but he will probably not. In Nozick's language, that's an "undue risk," which the child has the right to prohibit. The child, not being at the age of reason, has the right to have other family members intervene on his behalf.

We cannot, then, cleanly separate the father's best interest from the son's interest. The child's best interest is having his father in the best shape as possible, since the child is dependent. This dependency means that our actions no longer concern just ourselves. We are obligated and liable to our family members, and the dangerous actions of one family member (even if they're only directed at themselves in a narrow sense) end up imposing risks on all other members. This means, generally speaking, we may prohibit others from actions against their self-interest because their self-interest is itself vital to our self-interest.

When we embed the individual in a social context, we see that he is trapped in a web of social obligations (at the very least familial obligations) and that these provide the grounds for interference by other family/community members. These social obligations may be unasked for, but they are still binding nonetheless. The only one who can be free from paternalistic pressures of any kind is the lone wolf, who does not live in any mutually supportive/dependent community. But those people are very rare.

Endnote: I see how the risk-prohibition line of reasoning can get out of hand quickly. If we are to stop all people who impose risks on us, then are we to prohibit driving? Nozick's principle of prohibition does not resolve the core issue, which is determining which kinds of risk are acceptable and which are not. Still, I think there's merit to the idea of prohibiting actions that impose undue risk to ourselves. Even if there weren't, Nozick still argues an inconsistent position, for having a family member impose risks on us is just as bad as having indepedent agents impose the risk of unreliable justice procedures.

Update (Feb. 15, 2011): I've made small changes to make sure I more accurately convey my positions.


  1. Does Nozick provide a criterion for when self-harming actions become socially harmful?

    There is no contradiction as long as a distinction exists. In fact, even if the distinction is vague, that is not sufficient to show that it is a contradictory position. Only that it has not been fleshed out fully.

    In your example, perhaps the just state (or society) can only intervene if the father starts beating his child. Your own opinion might be that the father should be stopped even before that happens. If he drinks habitually, perhaps someone (society) ought to step in and say, "You are a bad father and we will intervene before you harm your child."

    I think what you're arguing against is not the distinction between self-harm and societal harm (which to me sounds just like Mills' harm principle; does Nozick differentiate his argument somehow?) You seem to be arguing that we have to be careful where we draw this line i.e. that some actions that seem to only harm the self are indeed harmful to others.

    But are you arguing that EVERY self-harming action is an other-harming action?

  2. Some points of clarification:

    1. I'm not aware that Nozick does provide that criterion. But I haven't read his whole book either, so I'm not familiar on all his positions.

    2. Also, I don't think every self-harming action is an other-harming action, just more than we think; and the more embedded we are in social networks, the more our self-harming actions matter to well-being of others.

    3. I don't believe that in my example the state/society should be the one to step in and prohibit the father. I take Nozick's position to mean that those directly affected by the undue risk have the right to prohibit, and in this case I see those people being the family members.

    In sum, though, I think you captured the thrust of my argument better than I did: we need to be careful where we draw the line between individual-harming and other-harming actions, and at times the line can be fuzzy. That's why, in the end, I think the truth lies somewhere between paternalism (harm-prevention) and anti-paternalism. People are simultaneously individuals and members of a social system, and I think the impulses to harm-prevention or anti-paternalism are attempts to respond to the demands of each reality.