All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1962

Why Is Paternalism Wrong?

Paternalism: “A relation between the governed and the government… involving care and control suggestive of those followed by a father.”

Few questions are as simple to ask or as difficult to answer as the query, “Why is anything wrong?” Such a question—even though it may not reach the verbal level—is being asked by more and more people.

Why is it difficult to find an­swers in the realm of ethics? Per­haps it is because of a general lack of really searching reflection and thought in this area. Mostly, throughout recorded history, there has been little call upon reason to figure out answers to questions about right or wrong; responses have been handed down to us “tailor-made.” The great moral codes of history have been in sub­stantial agreement as to what is commanded and what proscribed. Without much explanation of why an act is wrong, these codes have merely decreed: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and so on. As long as we believed in the infallibility of the source or author of the code, there was little occasion to challenge it. If we took the decrees at face value, we never had to reason why.

Now, however, many people no longer take the Commandments for granted. Increasingly, they ask, “Why is i t wrong to steal?” “Why it is wrong to lie?” This is not necessarily a bad omen. It may be simply a new requirement of the Cosmic Scheme: another step in the bringing up or maturing of rational human beings. One may find in this novel ethical situation the suggestion that we either find these answers for ourselves or become castoffs in the evolution of humanity. When evil forces are on the rampage, as they now are, we need to know why they are evil in order to avert them, lest they continue to engulf and de­stroy us.

“Thou Shalt Not Steal”

A comment or two on theft may be a useful introduction to the much more difficult question of our title, “Why is paternalism wrong?”

“Thou shalt not steal” presup­poses the institution of private property. There would be no con­ception of theft unless there were, first, ideas about what is mine and what is thine. Stealing is the taking of the property of another without his consent.

Theft has been described as the first labor-saving device. And, if we are not careful, it may be the last; for theft is becoming uni­versal. Not person-from-person thievery—that is only minor—but politically organized thievery on the grand scale: Socialism is founded on the taking of the property of some without their consent for the alleged benefit of others, and Americans are in­creasingly condoning or even sup­porting socialism in one or more of its numerous forms. True, most governmental taking of property without consent is legalized, but legality is not the same as moral­ity. Legalization of theft simply nullifies the legalized penalties against theft.

This popular penchant for tak­ing property without consent is reason enough for asking, “Why is it wrong to steal?” Numerous clergymen even—supposedly the custodians of the Commandments—are demanding that the fruits of the labor of some be forcibly taken for the benefit of others. No wonder the Bible’s admonition is now in question!

Why Killing Is Wrong

If stealing is too popular, too much the current practice to stim­ulate deep thought, too high in emotional content to allow sober reflection, let us examine the re­lated question, “Why is it wrong to kill?” Nearly everyone will agree that it is wrong for one per­son to kill another person, but there are fewer who will question the morality of many persons kill­ing many persons, as in war. So, even the answer to this question is not cut and dried. Not knowing why it is wrong to kill, many per­sons think that killing is right if done legally on a large enough scale. Why is killing an evil act?

At the outset, let us explore one blind alley. Make the assumption that the rightness or wrongness of killing rests exclusively on subjective judgments because nothing relevant to ethical acts exists be­yond the mind of man. Assume that questions of morality are not matters for objective determina­tion, that each person is a law un­to himself. If this is the case, any serious ethical inquiry would be so much idle nonsense. No reasoning would be involved, nothing more than asking people how they hap­pen to feel about stealing, say, or killing. With the poll concluded, there would be X number of af­firmatives and Y number of nega­tives.

Working from the assumption that there is no creative power beyond the mind of man, no moral question is posed; indeed, nothing more than, “What, please, is your personal opinion?” Thus, killing would be regarded favorably or unfavorably as any individual might personally decide; and, should he change his mind on the matter, killing would be an ap­proved act one day and a disap­proved act the next. This type of consideration is below the level of moral determination, just as is any action based on an opinion poll.

Parenthetically, some utilitar­ian theorists reject murder, theft, paternalism, and the like on the ground that these behaviors do not pay. While any person, graced with a degree of rationality, would agree that killing is not a work­able maxim, nonetheless, workabil­ity is no more in the moral realm than are opinion polls. Utilitarian economists concede this, claiming that it is not within the scope of their discipline to investigate the morality of any given act. Does it or does it not work? This is all they presume to investigate. Thus, killing and other acts of depreda­tion are only amoral matters to these people in their role as econo­mists. While workability is not to be taken lightly, it lacks the sig­nificance of deeply built-in moral convictions.

A Judgment Higher than Man’s

Very well. If morality is not de­terminable by subjective judg­ments, if an objective point of ref­erence is a prime requirement for finding out why an action is right or wrong, where shall we look for our supreme norm, our fundamen­tal objective? It is perfectly ob­vious, once subjective judgments are regarded as inadequate, that our standard must be an objective over and beyond the human cor­tex. If the morality of killing or stealing or paternalism is to be examined, the search must be con­ducted at this high level.

Anthropomorphism—the belief in a man-like deity of some other­worldly form — is less and less subscribed to, and there are sharp and often bitter disagreements among the adherents of doctrin­aire religious faiths. Nonetheless, there have been throughout the ages, as well as now, millions of individuals who are, from their own observations and distinctly personal experiences, aware of an Intelligence, an Architect, a Cre­ator, an Infinite Consciousness—call this what you will. Man did not create himself. This is self-evident, for man knows next to nothing about himself. There is a Supreme Reality—God—that man can never comprehend but can, nonetheless, become aware of. Man can no more comprehend God than he can comprehend infinite space or time, for example. Yet, man can become aware of infinite space or time by observing that he cannot comprehend finite space or time—a point in space or time beyond which there is no space or time.

The expression, Infinite Con­sciousness, brings the idea of the Supreme Reality into focus as nearly as any term I have come upon. True, this is incomprehen­sible. Yet, an awareness of Infinite Consciousness can be gained by merely trying to imagine a point in consciousness beyond which there could be no more conscious­ness.

The individual human conscious­ness is expansible. This fact must stand on its own manifestation; itis not rationally demonstrable to any human being who has not had an immediate experience of it, any more than the color red is logi­cally demonstrable to a color-blind person or the sound of middle C to a deaf mute. Try to suggest anything in earthly life or in the process of emergence or evolution higher than an aspiration directed toward the expansion of conscious­ness, awareness, perceptivity, in­sight, inspiration, cognition, cere­bral hatching. Isn’t this the high­est goal we can conceive for our lives?

The Hope of Creation

We may then rationally con­clude from these observations that man’s highest earthly purpose is to expand his own individual con­sciousness into as near a harmony with Infinite Consciousness as pos­sible. It is to this Supreme Reality that his first allegiance is owed. All else must be relegated to the realm of means or series of ap­proximations to this supreme end. Man is at once the offspring and the hope of Creation. To the ex­tent that man succeeds in a real­ization of those creative potentiali­ties peculiar to his own person­ality, to that extent does he share in Creation—infinitesimal though any individual share may be.

Here is an Object that caps all subjective judgments. Anything less than a transcendent Object in this spiritual dimension makes nonsense of attempts to explain why any particular human action is right or wrong. But once we have discovered our object in this highest hierarchy of spiritual val­ues, the analysis of why comes clear and easy.

That which is ultimately right and true for man is that which is in harmony with Infinite Con­sciousness. Any action or thought of man conducive to the perfec­tion or completion of the Creator-individual order must be construed as right, and such construction is a moral or ethical judgment. It is necessary, however, to emphasize that man’s tie-in with Infinite Consciousness or the Creator is a strictly personal, individual rela­tionship; human consciousness is exclusively an individualistic phe­nomenon; sects, races, families, committees, nations, collectives of any sort cannot qualify as con­scious entities. There is no social mind.

When Man Interferes

What, then, must be construed as wrong? Can it be other than man-concocted interferences or ob­fuscations or deterrents which im­pair an individual’s freedom to realize, as he chooses and as his abilities permit, his own creative potentialities; actions which cir­cumvent the harmonization of his own consciousness with that of Infinite Consciousness? Any act or deed or thought which injures or impairs or darkens or breaks this sacred circuit is, by these def­initions, evil or wrong!

For one person to take the life of another is to sever the sacred circuit. Thus, murder must be wrong.1

What about theft? Why is the Commandment correct in decree­ing, “Thou shalt not steal?” Liveli­hood is but the extension of life. Without the former the latter is impossible. The taking of liveli­hood in the absence of consent en­croaches upon a man’s life; and complete deprivation takes his life. To legalize the act does not alter its immorality one whit, any more than the legalization of mur­der would make it moral!

Now, why is paternalism wrong? Paternalism, by definition, presumes a transfer of responsi­bility. Instead of each individual being responsible for himself, it posits the proposition that the gov­ernment is responsible for him responsible for his wage, his hours or labor, the quantity of his pro­duction, the prices he may receive, what and with whom he may ex­change, his health, his old age, on and on; responsible, in short, for his security, welfare, and pros­perity.

We are not here concerned with the workability or the utility of paternalism. Economists can dem­onstrate that it hasn’t a leg to stand on; there is no aspect of paternalism that has not been in­tellectually demolished. No, we are not concerned with the ques­tion, “Does paternalism work?” We are searching only for an ans­wer to the question, “Is it right or is it wrong?”

Responsibility May Not Be Delegated

In the first place, paternalism is a misrepresentation of fact. Ac­cording to the way things are, re­sponsibility for self is as non­transferable as is breathing or be­lieving or willing or intuiting or worshiping. And no collective, be it a government, a union, or a pri­vate welfare agency, can any more assume the responsibility for a person than can a committee of baboons.

What can, and too often does, happen is this: A person, if naive enough, can be sold the notion that some person or collective or government can accept and dis­charge the responsibilities that are solely his own. Acting on this false premise, the individual flicks his own switch to “off”; he, in his ignorance, breaks the sacred cir­cuit himself; he, alone in charge of his own emergence, drops at­tention to self, thereby leaving his destiny unattended and com­mitting himself to no higher aim and purpose than mere animal ex­istence. Recalling our life object as being the harmonization of the individual consciousness with In­finite Consciousness, paternalism, as a concept, can be seen to be as destructive of the purpose of life as killing. Paternalism must, there­fore, qualify as evil—wrong!

We must assume that life is a gift of the Creator, for man can­not create life. Man, it is believed, is the highest form of earthly life because he is endowed with facul­ties that are not common to other forms of life: the potential power to think, to choose, to will, to re­member, to intuit, to believe, to gain in consciousness. These mar­velous faculties are always per­sonal endowments; they are in­dividualistically dispensed, and in no other manner. They cannot be given to another for management or development or growth. Each man is individually responsible to the Endower of his faculties for the realization of their potential­ities. In the nature of the case no other human being can do this for him.

There is evidence aplenty that conscious effort and continued ex­ercise of these faculties will re­sult in their growth and that disuse will bring about a decline or atrophy. For an individual to accept the false notion of pater­nalism is for him to accept the fatal—yes, fatal—error of dis­use. “Use or lose,” is a basic law of life. If we embrace Infinite Con­sciousness as our prime object or premise, we cannot help but con­clude that paternalism breaks the life circuit.

The evil of paternalism is two-sided. On the one hand is the pas­sion to play pater to people, this having motivations that range from imposing one’s own brand of good on others, to an over eagerness to be charitable, to the gain­ing of prestige and power—as is often the case with political wel­farists. On the other hand is the ignorance which permits one to be “patered” to. Here the motiva­tions range from the desire for ease to the dread of overcoming obstacles—few persons realizing that the art of becoming is com­posed of acts of overcoming.2 Many people will try to satisfy their physical desires along the lines of least possible resistance, regardless of how unethical the lines may be, because they have failed to cultivate any moral and spiritual aspirations.

A Feeling of Virtue

How account for the aggressive do-gooder? This is such a com­mon trait that there must be many influences some of which, no doubt, lie too deep to be ob­served. Ore obvious influence, however, is the vicarious sense of virtue many folks experience when they “aid” their brother, even though the aid be premature. An­other, observed among many poli­ticians, is the personal power such a role confers on them. But neither of these influences rises above a low form of selfishness; they do not even qualify as intel­ligent self-interest.

More important than the above influences, at least among individ­uals of high moral and ethical aspirations, are two Biblical in­junctions. The first has to do with the response to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The question is not answered in Gene­sis, nor is it answered directly anywhere else in the Bible. The Bible does deal with this ques­tion, however, and the Mosaic answer is affirmative. But it does not mean “keeping” a brother in the custodial sense! The real an­swer to Cain’s question is to be found in Exodus 20:6, where the Lord says: “… keep my com­mandments.” There is no hint here of being an aggressive do-gooder. Rather, the idea is that all men fare best if each of us re­frains from killing, stealing, cov­eting, in short, if each of us keeps off the backs of others. Give our brothers their freedom to act as self-responsible, self-controlling individuals—and do not interf ere! They, then, may do as well as we.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a profound rule which is, in effect, to attempt no rescue until the vic­tim calls for help. Premature ef­forts only postpone the moment of salvation. The temptation of well-intentioned people to jump the gun on this is enormous. Doing good is no easier than creating beauty. “Good is a product of the ethical and spiritual artistry of individuals,” wrote Aldous Huxley. “It cannot be mass-produced.”

Growth Requires Exercise

And thus it is with other types of distress. Very often it takes a lot of agony before the marvelous self-preservative faculties of a per­son will begin to operate. Human faculties, when unexercised, are weak and flaccid, but sooner or later, in most cases, they will ac­tivate if the stimulus be great enough. It is the development of these faculties—they are spiritual—that transcends in importance all other aspects of life, for is this not the supreme reason for man’s earthly existence? True, the per­son in distress may prefer succor to the awful pain of getting his creaky apparatus in motion, and the temptation to extend prema­ture succor is nigh on to irresist­ible. It may take more strength of character not to give prematurely—particularly of someone else’s substance as in socialism—than it takes not to accept until one’s last resource is exhausted.

Knowing when to go to the res­cue—being charitable—may well be a higher calling than most well-intentioned people conceive it to be. If one should not go to an-other’s rescue until he is at the end of his rope, how is one to tell when that condition exists? Well, not many of us can tell, but here is where proficiency comes in: When a distressed individual is at the end of his rope, when he has exhausted his last resource, he will—be he atheistic, agnostic, or whatever—cry out for help, per­haps silently or in a symbolic way. This cry is a prayer. We don’t know how it works, but let us say it bounces off The Infinite and is relayed to some nearby, sensitive and spiritually attuned individual who then comes to the rescue.

This spiritual attunement is the real effort on the part of any per­son who would achieve the distinc­tion of being truly charitable. To “help” before the call is only to destroy the possible development or emergence or growth of a hu­man soul. Regardless of how well-intentioned such proffered assist­ance may be, it is evil, not virtue.

“Love Thy Neighbor”

A Biblical injunction which, when misread, may be the source of paternalistic mischief is, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” What is meant by love? The Greeks had at least three words for it.³ We have a dozen meanings for love, not one of which may be what was intended by Biblical writers. At least, there is a line of reasoning which suggests that the popular interpretation might be improved.

About the highest definition of love in common use is that which makes it synonymous with deep affection. Defined in this manner, the Biblical injunction would read, “Have as deep an affection for your neighbor as you have for yourself.” Could not some mean­ing more profound than this have been meant? The recital of a per­sonal experience may convey what I believe to be the deeper meaning of love.

Some years ago, five of us as a seminar team arrived at a YMCA camp of a Midwestern city. At dinner one of the hosts remarked, “Since knowing you, I have a whole new set of friends.” Inquiry revealed what he meant: Before he became interested in the study of freedom, his friends were “the smart set”; now he associated with those sharing his new inter­est. He had taken up with an en­tirely different type of person.

As moderator of the seminar, I designated the topic for the eve­ning’s discussion and, because of its nature, the term, “the philoso­phy of love” was used repeatedly by the participants. The session recessed at midnight.

On retiring, two thoughts were much in mind, (1) “I have a whole new set of friends,” and (2) “the philosophy of love.” These two are related, thought I, as I fell asleep.

On awakening the next morn­ing, the first question that came to mind was, “For whom, among all of the people I know, have I the greatest affection?” A hasty re­view disclosed that they were those who were giving me light or, conversely, those few who found it advantageous to draw on me for light. They were my teachers and my students, those individuals as­sociated with me in a small but, nonetheless our own, emerging circuit—the enlightenment cir­cuit, so to speak.

Thus the conclusion: Love, in its highest form, is a process, synony­mous with the giving of light or, put another way, Love is Light. Affection, esteem, friendship of the finest type is a consequence, a reward. Daily experiences confirm that affection or adoration grows between those who assist each other in enlightenment or in ex­panding each other’s conscious­ness.

With the above as background, the Biblical injunction, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” reads, “Give enlightenment to those within your orbit as you would be en­lightened.” Love and affection are not synonymous but, instead, are cause and effect.

To sum up: the paternalistic pattern is distinguished by three archetypes, these being its entire composition:

1.       Those from whom livelihood is coercively taken. Taking prop­erty without consent is theft. The victims are done a wrong.

2.       Those to whom the fruit of the labor of others is given. Ill-gotten fruits never benefit anyone. Further, premature giving is de­structive of life’s purpose, and is wrong. A political apparatus is in­capable of rendering charity, for a collective has no means of at­tunement to a spiritual order.

3.       Those authoritarians who do the taking and the giving. Playing God is the original sin.

Paternalism is not only unwork­able in a strictly utilitarian sense, as any skilled economist can easily prove, but it is wrong in a moral and spiritual sense. Why, then, should any rational person ever have anything to do with the wel­fare state?



The Issues of Politics

My affections center round the little, near things; bacon, eggs, pipes and pubs and gardens and kisses and the morning paper—and trees and flowers in a bowl and going for walks in the rain. So, I think, do most men’s and nearly all women’s.

I believe that out of the little things the big things come. I have never understood why the issues of politics turn so rarely upon the little things that touch men’s hearts.

C. E. M. JOAD, Opinions (London: Westhouse, 1945). Author’s Preface.

Foot Notes

1 It is not murder, administered by Na­ture, if one jumps off the Empire State Building or if one drinks a cup of hem­lock. This is suicide. Nor is it murder if the initiator of violence loses his life by another’s defensive action. He initiates the action which causes his death. The aggressor is the author of the action that destroys him. Thus, in effect, he commits suicide.

2 “. the slaves of antiquity did not belong to themselves. But they knew that freedom which consists in not feeling re­sponsible.” (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 59.)

3 Eros, Agape, and Philia.

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”