Educating Citizens: The Choice for Paternalism

von Uwe Volkmann

The idea of educating citizens does not receive much credit in contemporary political philosophy; it seems to belong to an older model of Aristotelian perfectionism that has long been overcome. Political reality however is a different one in our time; even in basically liberal societies – and especially at the level of the European Union – governments are prone to a great number of measures which in one sense or another all have an educating effect on individuals or on society as a whole, and this very often also includes a certain dose of paternalism. The long list ranges from regulations demanding of people to fasten their seat belts when sitting in a plane or in a car, over restrictions of private autonomy to prevent people from entering disadvantageous contracts, to the (at least in most European countries) currently widely accepted social security systems which force people to join them without asking whether they really need the help being offered or not.

There are now a number of objections raised by liberal political philosophy against this kind of regulation. The strongest of course and the most fundamental one is the principle of individual autonomy, which is closely connected to Mill’s well-known harm principle. This is opposed primarily to any regulation that in some respect or another may be considered as paternalistic. Another main objection – though one that mostly remains unspoken, and lurks in the background – comes from the idea of the separation of law and morals as it has been established by or at least is mostly assigned to Kant. This is challenged in particular by what I call governmental education of citizens. Of such we can speak when policies not only try to regulate the external conduct of people but also attempt to change their attitude towards something in one way or another, i.e. to modify their way of thinking ...

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