Paternalism II

I was recently accused of sounding like Donald Trump in suggesting that the tendency on the part of the “powers that be” to tell us what is good for us is “paternalistic.” I argued that those who cherish their freedom should be outraged that the state, or any other agency, should tell us what is the best course of action. In saying this I noted that the freedom that is so highly prized carries with it the responsibility to act with respect toward other people. Indeed, my point was that in taking this giant step toward paternalism in the case of the caronaviorus we are being told we are too stupid to decide what steps we should take for ourselves.

My position is closer to that of John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” than it is to Donald Trump — if anyone is in a position to say exactly what it is that the man is saying. I confess I don’t understand much of what he says. But from what I do understand the two men seem to be at polar opposites on any intellectual scale with which I am familiar. Mill’s “very simple principle” says, in effect, that there are no moral grounds for stopping a person from doing something unless it is clear that his or her actions will harm another person. And let’s be clear about this: we are talking about intentional harm — as when a woman is abused or a thief holds up another at gun point. Mill is not talking about “incidental” harm, that is, harm the person cannot possibly be said to know he or she is inflicting on another — as in the case of attending a sporting event while one (unknowingly) carries the virus.

Now it might be said that by telling people not to attend sporting events the state is prohibiting us from infecting others with the virus, thereby harming them. But this assumes that we have the virus and that those who do have it, or might have it, are unable to make the decision to stay at home and seek medical attention. Or, as noted above, it ignores the case of the innocent carrier who infects others without knowing it: in that case the responsible thing to do is to make sure one is not a carrier before attending a packed event. The claim that we need to be told when to attend or not to attend a sporting event rests on the assumption that we are all a bunch of lemmings who blindly follow the latest leader who wants us to attend next Friday’s NBA Basketball game between the Wolves and the Clippers. We don’t have enough sense to stay at home and watch it on television. We are too stupid to know that helmets do protect those who ride a motorcycle, seat belts do protect those in car crashes, and infant car seats do protect the very young. Thus laws are written and enforced.

But, and here’s the heart and soul of the comment that accused me of Trumpism (the worst thing anyone can say about another person): We ARE too stupid. I can’t disagree. My argument, like Mill’s, assumes that reasonable people will make reasonable decisions and act rationally. And this assumption cannot hold up to empirical evidence. Folks really are too stupid to do the sensible thing. We must be told.

But what this means is that the libertarian dream and the argument against paternalism is based on a “best of all possible worlds” scenario. In that world people would do the smart thing. In this world, sad to sad (and increasingly) we do not. Thus steps taken to protect us all from the coronavirus are justified — and those who scream about their freedoms have no idea what they are screaming about. They certainly do not want to accept the responsibility that goes along hand in hand with freedom. You cannot have one without the other.

Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

Parental Rights Once More

My good friend Dana Yost made a lengthy comment on my recent blog regarding the rights of parents to choose prayer over medical treatment for their children. I admitted at the outset of that blog that this is a perplexing issue and the “conclusion” at the end of the blog Dana refers to is really a question. I tend to go back and forth on this issue, but I do want to defend my original position a bit further, if I can. I will begin with Dana’s comment, which will make this blog a bit long:

Hugh, you are right in that there are some delicate First Amendment rights to consider here. But I disagree with your final conclusion that the state should not step in, or charge the parents. Depriving the child of medical care — no matter how much the parents believe in the power of prayer — is equivalent to child abuse, to locking a kid in a basement, etc. In this day and age when the effects of medical care are widely known and easily accessible, the crime would probably be negligent homicide. The parents have the right to practice their religion and refuse medical care for themselves, but do they really have that right to lead their child to death through their religious practices? I don’t think so — at some point, if one person’s religious beliefs intrude on the health or safety of another (even their own child), it is no longer a matter of protecting the parents’ First Amendment rights (as essential as they may be), but saving the life of another human. If someone were to practice a form of religion that called for child sacrifice — something Incan or Mayan or even like Jonestown, say — we surely would not permit them to burn their kid on a pyre or drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

The state has a deep obligation to look out for any child’s welfare, and there is much precedence to permit it. There are policies, positions in place within the legal system that do this, even when a child has both parents. Guardians ad litem can be assigned by a judge to represent the kid in court during custody proceedings, during cases where parents are accused of crimes, etc. Social services obviously has many methods of interceding on a child’s behalf when the kid’s health, education, etc., are being affected.

The parents should not lose their First Amendment rights to practice their religion. But they should lose their rights to be parents. They can continue to practice their religion in prison, but their kids should be allowed to at least live long enough to reach that “age of reason” so they can decide for themselves if they want to follow their parents’ religion. This kid never had the chance. That is most definitely a crime.

There are multiple issues here, including the First Amendment rights of the parents. The precedents don’t affect the argument, because the initial case may have been flawed and subsequent cases based on that decision may simply perpetuate the mistake. Dana facetiously (I think) draws the analogy of “child sacrifice” as a religious right and I thought I had dealt with that in the original blog. Clear cases of child abuse do constitute grounds for state involvement in removing a child from the parents’ care. However, this does raise the second critical issue: paternalism. At what point does the state have a right to step in and take a child from his parents for the child’s own good?  It is a very tough call. I have admitted the case of blatant child abuse, where the child is kept in a basement (Dana’s example). But the issue of paternalism rests on the legitimate concern of the illicit extension of state power. As Mill pointed out — and we have seen countless times –the political state has a natural (unnatural?) tendency to extend its power, especially when citizens are the least bit unwary. There are cases of child-welfare personnel threatening to remove children from their parents because their children have falsely accused them of child abuse. So even those cases must be carefully scrutinized. At the very least the burden of proof is always on the state to prove abuse on the part of parents. And if we really care about the children, what about the possible trauma to those seven kids who were taken from the “unfit” parents mentioned in the original blog and who will now be placed in a foster home? The article suggests that the family is — or was — very close. We must not let our emotions run away with us. But I want to remain focused on the matter of paternalism on the part of the civil state.

Given the tendency of the state to extend its power, we need to be clear that there are lines beyond which that power should not cross. And I suggest that parental control of children is one such area — with the obvious exceptions mentioned above. As Mill noted, we need to err on the side of the individual in all cases since their power over the state is minimal. I would argue, for example, that the state ought never to interfere in such personal matters as requiring motorcycle helmets and seat belts — if people are stupid enough to go without protection they hurt only themselves. It’s the price we pay for freedom. It is a mistake to think that whenever an individual might get hurt the state ought to intervene and protect that individual even against himself. That is the paradigm case of paternalism. And a parents’ duties to the children are not something the political body can define; they are for the individuals themselves and their churches (in this case) to decide. If those individuals choose to do stupid things, even if those stupid things affect their children’s health and well-being, and, especially as in this case, those actions are based on convictions that are deeply and sincerely held, then the state must back off and allow terrible things to happen. After all, the New Testament is full of examples of faith-healing: can anyone presume to know for certain that prayer cannot be effective? On the contrary. And isn’t it the case that a great many terrible things have happened in hospitals and doctors’ offices — presumably by mistake?

I do not think this is as simple a case as many seem to assume and I may change my view tomorrow. My goal here is to play the gadfly.  But I confess that while I think the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens from powers over which they have little or no control — such as the attacks on the environment by wealthy corporations — I cannot see that the state has any right to protect us from ourselves or to protect children from their parents (except in extreme cases of proven abuse, as noted). As a general rule I have less confidence in representatives of the state doing the right thing by children than I do the parents of children they love. In the end, I do worry about the abuse of state power and the right to genuine religious freedom — even if I do not approve of what is done in the name of that religion.