John Stuart Mills' On Liberty is the basis of western political thought, or at least the non authoritarian version. According to Mills
The only purpose for which power can rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. he cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right.Eli's attention has been drawn to a book by Sarah Conly, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism reviewed by Cass Sunstein. To Conly and Sunstein Mill's point of view can only stand if it is empirically justified that each is the best judge of their own good.
Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right? That is largely an empirical question, and it cannot be adequately answered by introspection and intuition. In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.There are many arguments supporting Sunstein's proposition sustained by research on the subject. People overestimate their own capacities, underestimate risks, concentrate on the present to the cost of the future and cannot be expert on all of the issues upon which decisions need be made. Still following Conly
There are those, however rare, who continue to think that all paternalistic constraints are unjustified - who would prefer a world without prescriptions for medicines, seat belts, or limits on interest rates, whatever the human costs. For those who reject any paternalistic attempt to help people avoid the results of their own ignorance or poor choices , no argument may avail; they may have a fundamentally different, and I would argue, morally unjustified, sense that people deserve to suffer for their own mistakes.Beyond this, in a world where people interact, there have to be paternalistic rules, if only to keep us from each others throats. Conly stresses that paternalism implies a reciprocal duty to help others. In her view it is not morally justified to leave others to suffer, something that Mills' requires, but paternalism involves us all in social interactions, the natural state of humans.
Conly emphasizes that people confuse means and ends, they treat their decisions about means with the things they actually want and this is one place where paternalism can help people get what they want, for example health, by paternalistic limitations on what they do, for example, smoking and drinking.
While the Adam and Eve is deeply ingrained in western culture, humans evolved in tribes where survival required mutual support and subjugation of autonomy. Our increased control of our environment has opened up the possibilities of increased autonomy, but unlimited autonomy as we have seen degrades the environment upon which our autonomy depends.
So it's a balancing act and it is easy to go too far in either direction, but to pretend that there is no ethical, historical, biological or economic justification either for autonomy or for paternalism is corrupt. The old saw is that your freedom ends at the Bunny's ears, but the problem is that in an increasingly tangled world that boundary is not easy to find.