Interests and paternalism

jwalker jwalker at
Wed Apr 12 09:13:37 MDT 1995

Thanks for the reply, Lisa --

> at first read I thought you were against paternalism, and then at the end
> you sound a bit paternalistic...
> Which is it?  (John just gave me a jumping off point for a peeve.)

I'm sympathetic to your peeve, but at the same time I find it hard to say
anything perfectly general about paternalism -- so I'm not going to
answer your question as succinctly as you may have hoped!  To my mind the
difficulty is that there are some instances of paternalism that just
about everybody wants to reject -- paternalism towards fully mature,
rational human beings who have reflected well on the matter and so
forth.  But there are other instances (often called "soft") that just
about everybody wants to accept -- paternalism towards people, or
creatures, that don't have well-developed rational capacities, like

So I think it's a substantive question in any given case whether
paternalism is justified.

> Paternalism and my dislike for it are some of the reasons that I am
> questioning the usage of the term "interests".  I'm glad to find that
> others also think it problematic.

I guess what I find problematic about the matter of interests and
paternalism is the question on what ground one advocates radical social
and political change, like a move to socialism.  Would such a move _not_
be in the interest of those who are oppressed and downtrodden by
capitalism?  If not then such change seems downright unjust.  Would such
change then _be_ in the interest of the oppressed?  If so, that seems a
good ground for opposing capitalism -- but then we have the difficulty
that many or most of those who are oppressed may not _believe_ that a
change to socialism is in their interest.

(I think it's not an easy question to settle, whether most folks in the US
think a move away from capitalism to socialism is in their interest.  It
will matter a lot how the question is asked -- I presume that if the word
"socialism" is mentioned the answer will be "no", but that if you asked
something like, "would you like to have more control over your work
conditions", the answer would be "yes".)

But supposing that most of the capital-oppressed don't think socialism is
in their interest, you then have the question whether pursuing socialism
anyway is offensively paternalistic.  Should one invoke the idea of false
consciousness, or would that be paternalistic in a bad way too?

I suppose one could just jettison the language of interests entirely.
Maybe it's unhelpful.  But then one will need another explanation of the
reason why one ought to pursue socialist change, if the reason "it'll be
good for the downtrodden" isn't available any more.

> Isn't it this idea, that "the little people" don't know what's good for
> them, that is used by the powerful of all sorts (even by some so-called
> socialists of the past) to justify secrecy and elitism?

Yeah, this is certainly a worry.  But maybe we can recognize and condemn
abuses of a principle that can sometimes be used rightly.  Which isn't to
endorse paternalism flat out -- as I mentioned I'm not sure what to say!

John D. Walker

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list