Lifestyle regulation: Is it always paternalistic? – A dialogue between Lyra and Aunt Sophia

L.: Aunt Sophia, today, I read in the newspaper that the Action on Sugar was another ‘paternalistic attempt to endanger the liberty of the individual’. What is so bad about paternalism?

A. S.: The liberal society is built on the idea that there should be no interference with the individual’s free development as long as it does not hurt somebody else (J. S. Mill, On Liberty). Since paternalism interferes with the liberty to choose freely, it is criticized and incompatible with the concept of an enlightened society.

L.: What is paternalism?

A. S.: Paternalism is the prevention of an agent (Y) from doing something (O) in the agent’s free choice, because in the perception of the preventer (X), the choice would be detrimental to the agent. X prevents Y from conducting O in Y’s free choice, because in the perception of X, O is detrimental to (the well-being of) Y.

L.: That sounds like lifestyle regulation is very paternalistic. A law to prevent me from eating a burger for lunch for example, would fit into this definition.

A. S.: Yes, if it fulfils the criteria of paternalism.

L.: What are the criteria of paternalism?

A. S.: X is the regulatory authority and Y is an individual. O is a lifestyle option, as for example eating a burger for lunch. X might think that it would be detrimental to the health of Y to eat a burger because it usually contains a lot of innutritious fat, refined carbohydrates and salt, lacking macro-nutrients and carrying a high-glycaemic index that will endanger Y’s insulin regulation and in the long term lead to diabetes, obesity and other related illnesses (Hearst et al., American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 44, Issue 6 (June 2013)).

L.: So my example exactly fulfils the criteria of paternalism.

A. S.: Not necessarily. Consider the fourth criterion of our definition: free choice. Free choice entails the ability and possibility to decide between options without hindrance. Assuming Y did not freely choose to do O (i.e. to eat a burger) but just did it because omitting O or doing something else (P) is not an available option because it involves too high a cost. Y could for example work in a neighbourhood where there was only one burger outlet and no other place to get food from in a distance that was manageable to meet during lunch. Further, Y did neither have the time to cook in advance nor to shop for something else because Y is working so much and has other demanding commitments. In this situation, Y would be unable to exercise the freedom of choice. Hence, the criteria of paternalism would not be fulfilled.

L.: Accordingly, lifestyle regulation is only paternalistic when it prevents the exercise of free choice.

A. S.: Exactly. Lifestyle regulation can even have a positive effect on the individual’s liberty: Whenever lifestyle regulation enables the individual to choose, e.g. by offering an equally or more attractive option (P). Hence, if X required the burger outlet in the surrounding of Y’s work to offer a fresh vegetable dish for an appropriate price next to the burger, Y’s margin of options would be wider and thereby his or her free development empowered rather than limited. In the same line, X could require Y’s employer to provide for (the possibility to have) a longer lunch break so Y had the chance to get something different than the burger.

L.: But such measures would limit the freedom of the burger outlet or the employer, respectively.

A. S.: Absolutely. But the freedom of the burger outlet and the employer – albeit very relevant questions themselves – are not relevant to the question of paternalism.