I read an interesting NY Times article by Jim Holt about a view called “soft paternalism,” the idea that you know what’s in your best self interest, but an external force, someone other than you (either the government or the private sector or your friends/family), will help you do it. The article made me think about whether soft paternalism is a good thing for poker players who have a problem with playing poker.
In this post, I discuss Holt’s article, specifically the reason why Holt believes that libertarians do not like soft paternalism, and his idea that soft paternalism may be good for people because it promotes more freedom, something that libertarians like.
How does soft paternalism work? One way an external force can help you do what’s in your best interest is if you empower it to prevent you from doing what’s not in your best interest. This is called a “self-binding” scheme. It might involve putting a lock on the refrigerator and giving the key to your wife in order to help you lose weight. Or it might be like when Seinfeld didn’t want to date that hot but stupid woman, and asked Kramer to hold her telephone number so that he couldn’t call her.
Self-binding schemes have been used by governments to help compulsive gamblers stop gambling. If you think you have a problem with gambling, you can put your name on an “exclusion list” that will ban you from the casinos. If you violate the ban, you risk being arrested and having your winnings taken away from you. According to Holt, in Missouri, “more than 10,000 people have availed themselves of this program.”
Holt tells us that libertarians don’t like government-run self-binding schemes. One reason is that libertarians don’t like government. They think that it gets in the way of the individual’s freedom. Another reason has to do with one of the assumptions that Holt says underlies soft paternalism.
According to Holt, underlying soft paternalism are the following two assumptions: (i) there is no such thing as personal identity (the commonsense idea that there is a continuing self), and (ii) that the long-term self is more important than the short-term self. According to Holt, the libertarian criticizes the second assumption, arguing that there is no good reason to believe that one’s long-term (prudential) self is more valuable than one’s short-term (emotional) self.
Holt doesn’t discuss any objections to the first assumption, the Humean or Buddhist no-self view. While he does point to some empirical evidence that indicates that this view might be true, he neglects to mention the most fascinating scientific literature on split-brain patients (people who have had commissurotomies for epilepsy) which have indicated to some philosophers, for example, Derek Parfit, that the no-self view is correct.
The assumption that we have no self is certainly controversial. But contrary to what Holt assumes, I don’t see why the soft-paternalist needs to make it. Why can’t he hold that we have a continuing self, and still make sense of a long-run self and short-run self? For example, I have the desire to play poker, because it’s fun. But I also have the desire not to have this desire to play poker, because I realize that it is getting in the way of a good relationship with my wife. Why can’t we can say the following? My desire to play poker is my short-run self. It is an emotional desire because it is for something that would give me immediate satisfaction. And my desire not to have this desire to play poker is my prudential, long-run self, because it is for something that is in my best self interest, or, at the very least, it is in what my wife thinks is in my best self-interest.
I said above that Holt thinks that, according to the libertarian, there is no good reason to accept one of the underlying assumptions of soft-paternalism, namely that the (prudential) long-run self is better than the (emotional) short-run self. Holt thinks this may be false, because by preferring the long-run self over the short-run self, one can be more free.
Holt is quite sketchy in his explanation of this, but I believe that he has the following idea in mind: Consider the typical heroin addict. Is he freely taking the heroin? One might say “no”. He is caught in the grips of a compulsion. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, someone Holt mentions in his article, would say that there is a conflict between the addict’s desire to take the heroin and his higher-order desire (i.e. a desire for a desire) not to take the heroin. If the addict gets his first-order desires and his second-order desires in alignment, then he will not be feel this conflict and hence will be more likely to escape his compulsion and act freely with respect to heroin.
I think this idea of weakness of will accounted for in terms of a conflict between first and second order desires has merit. But it’s not clear what this has to do with soft-paternalism. Holt seems to be saying that if you reduce the conflict between your first-order desires (I think Holt is thinking of this in terms of your short-term self) and your second-order desires (I think this is what Holt views as your long-term self), then you will be acting with more freedom, and that the way to do this is to prefer your prudential, second-order desires. In other words, Holt believes that when you act according to your prudential, long-run desires you will be acting more freely than if you act according to your emotional, short-run desires, because there will be less conflict, and less conflict entails more freedom.
I may have misinterpreted Holt. As I said, his explanation is brief and sketchy. But if I have interpreted him correctly, and if what he says about the libertarianism is correct, then I don’t think that his argument is good. I don’t see why a preference for the prudential, long-run self would reduce the conflict between the two kinds of desires/selves. Why couldn’t a preference for the short-run self work just as well as a preference for the long-run self?
It may be true that you want to get your selves/desires in allignment. How you accomplish this is another question. Perhaps the soft-paternalist answer is the correct one. Holt, however, hasn’t made a strong case that it is.