Video: Bowdoin Philosophy Professor Argues For Greater Paternalism

The new book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, by Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sarah Conly, has been described as “novel,” “illuminating” and “provocative” in the New York Review of Books. The New York Times reaffirms that Conly’s book brings “serious philosophical discussion” to the debate on autonomy versus paternalism. Conly’s argument is particularly relevant in light of the uproar over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas in New York City. Watch Associate Professor of Philosophy Larry Simon interview Conly about her book and why she thinks paternalism is a reasonable government response to some of our bad decisions.

Bowdoin Philosophy Professor Argues for Greater Paternalism from Bowdoin College on Vimeo.


  1. Prof. Conly seems to assume that when the gov’t tells the people that they can’t smoke anymore, the people won’t smoke anymore. Obviously, a lot of people would continue to smoke. But they will be forced to buy cigarettes on the black market and could be subject to criminal law, or at least fines, for doing so. And I wouldn’t be surprised if such changes fell most heavily on the most disadvantaged citizens, both personally and through the crime and distortion attendant to the vast expansion of the black market for drugs. So beyond restrictions on autonomy, which for some of us still matter, Prof. Conly’s position could devastate the lives it putatively protects. Gov’t spending on discouragement, offset by high taxes on the product being discouraged, seems much more reasonable to me. Maybe she’s right about extra big sodas or helmets on motorcycles — I really don’t know — but I think she’s stretched her argument to the breaking point here.

    Then again, I’m sure such concerns are addressed at length in the book, which seems worth a read.

    -An Alum

  2. Nudge.

  3. Christopher Hanks '68 says:

    Based on Cass Sunstein’s extended review of Professor Conly’s book,,
    it sounds like Professor Conly has constructed a very clever way to defend the idea that, when considering the role of government, the ends can justify the means.

    Let’s hope there are students at Bowdoin who are debating among themselves (and with Professor Conly) about whether her ideas really do hold water.

  4. Conly speaks ill of optimism bias.
    Too bad.
    Optimism bias is what makes the risk-taking entrepreneur possible.
    Optimism bias is what propels a researcher to devote years to solving that one important problem he knows will improve our lives.
    I’ll take autonomy over permanent childhood any day.

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