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Paternalism, Health, and Public Policy


Most of us would be outraged if doctors made decisions about our medical care without consulting us. Yet few object to public health policies that shape behaviour and restrict choice. Indeed, in certain public health contexts it seems more appropriate to focus on promoting citizens’ well-being, rather than on respecting choices. Similarly, few dispute parents’ right to override their children’s wishes and make healthcare decisions for them, or for carers to do so on behalf of disabled persons in their charge.

What explains our different reactions to these two sorts of case? This tension may arise because in some contexts it is not obvious what respecting autonomous decisions would require. For example, when dealing with diverse groups with conflicting preferences, or when implementing public health policies for populations whose autonomous capacities might be called into question, such as children and individuals with some cognitive impairments. But should we be so willing to allow outside interference when it comes to populations and vulnerable individuals? Is paternalistic treatment even possible here, if we cannot identify the autonomous will of these individuals or groups?

Over four inter-disciplinary workshops, this project will investigate the tension between the state’s duty to protect the health of its citizens, and the worry that such policies take important decisions out of the hands of those affected by them, undermining their autonomy and agency. These workshops are open to all, but registration is required. Registration forms for each workshop will be made available on this website in due course.

Project Investigators

This project is funded with the generous support of the Wellcome Trust.


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