It’s For Your Own Good

It is wrong to force your decision on others, even if you think doing so would be good for them. As long as they extend the same freedom to others, people should be left to choose their own mate, pursue their own career, buy and sell what they want, etc. They should be left to think and act for themselves without someone else forcing them.

But, then, how are we to think about the following?

 • Taking the car keys from someone who has been drinking alcohol.
 • Saving someone from being hit by an unseen car.
 • Making medical decisions for a deliriously sick relative
These all involve forcing your decision on someone.

To understand these we must first realize it is not true that we can benefit only when we think and act for ourselves. Some medicines are better for me than others even if I am too delirious to judge. It is better for me if someone pushes me from the car I don’t see. Nothing is of value to me if I am not committed to living, but that does not by itself imply that there cannot be cases where I’m better off if someone else does the thinking and forces me to do something. 

The second thing to realize is that such cases are not only those where a person is temporarily cognitively incapacitated. We often put deliberate efforts into getting others to do the thinking for us, consider our interests, and force us to accept their decisions. In a real estate transaction, I may authorize someone to exercise power of attorney. This person has the legal authority to forcefully commit me to some action. This person does not simply make a recommendation, leaving me the final decision. He is fully authorized to judge a situation, decide what is in my best interest, and commit me to, say, surrender some property or pay back a loan—even if I would have made a different decision.

The authorization might be informal. “Here is my credit card. Buy whichever you think would be best for me.” “If I drink too much, drag me out of the bar.”

The authorization may be contained within some other action. Getting married is an example. One spouse has the ability to force countless constraints on the other. One can spend the other’s money, run up credit card debt, make medical decisions for the other, or sign customs forms. A spouse getting divorced can be shocked to find what commitments have been made on his or her behalf.

Because of statute or custom, someone could, just by being at a certain place at a certain time, authorize another to act forcefully. By walking down the street, I have implicitly consented to being forced out of the way of a runaway car, not just to be alerted and asked to reconsider my steps, but to be pushed in an act that would otherwise be battery.

Once a person has reached maturity, he is responsible for knowing these implicit authorizations and explicitly overriding them if he wants to. If I don’t want to be resuscitated, I need to make that wish known. About to engage in a dangerous activity, I may need to tell others that I know the risks and want not to be stopped.

What is best for a person can be quite specific to that person and the situation. Knowing whether to hide medications my grandmother thinks will help her depends on knowing her condition, her competence to judge, and her goals. We rightly allow more interventions by family members than by strangers. We delegate power of attorney to those we believe understand our interests and are competent to judge what is best for us.

If a man were to delegate all his powers he would become one of those sad cases where a person no longer functions as a human being; is bathed, clothed, moved and fed by a caregiver; and is capable of only animal pleasures. But partial delegation can be good. Decisions made on my behalf can be good for me even if they are not the decisions I myself would have made, even if they run counter to decisions I myself have made.

So: It is wrong to force your decision on someone else, even if you think doing so would be good for him or her—unless you have been authorized by that person to do so, are competent to judge what is in his or her best interest, and have responsibly so judged.

What forceful actions does this principle allow the government? Only those that a total stranger would have, such as rescuing someone from a runaway car or from a similarly clear and present danger. A stranger does not acquire more rights by ganging up with other strangers. An 80% majority is not authorization to force the other 20%. Even if you would like the government to force itself on you, that does not authorize it to force itself on someone else. Neither one stranger nor many working together as a government has or have the right to force you just because he or they think doing so would be good for you.

As the agent tasked with protecting citizens from the initiation of force, the government does have responsibility for codifying the conditions under which citizens may authorize others. What puts a power of attorney in effect? What actions may a doctor take in an emergency? When may a family member be presumed to accept forceful intervention? How does someone explicitly rescind presumed consent? A proper government codifies these.

What about children? They need someone to do their thinking for them, all of it at first, less and less as they mature. Parents have the right to do that for their children, unless or until they fail in that responsibility. The government, chartered with protecting children’s rights as much as anyone else’s, should codify how and when someone becomes a child’s guardian and how and when the child becomes his own.

So back to that first situation above: When is it proper to take the car keys from someone who has been drinking? If he presents a clear and present danger to others, take the keys. Or, better—since objectively determining danger is difficult—let the police or bartender decide.

But what about when the person presents no danger to anyone but himself? Is it proper to forcefully take his car keys?

The answer depends on the same three factors that are always involved in cases where it might be proper to force your decisions on someone else. (1) Has the person authorized you? For example: Are you his legal guardian? Are you the evening’s designated driver? (2) Are you qualified to make the decision? Here, have you seen the person act cognitively impaired, or did you simply see him with an empty glass? (3) Are you justifiably confident that your decision will be in the person’s best interest? Here it makes a difference whether the person is an habitual drunk or a rare drinker temporarily despondent. Do you know the person well enough to know whether he’ll thank you in the morning? Would he be better left to suffer the consequences of a bad habit?

Homer writes that when Odysseus was approaching the island of the Sirens he announced he would not be plugging his ears, as all good captains knew they must lest they be seduced by the beautiful singing. Instead he would have the crew tie him to the mast. They were to plug their ears and sail on past, even if he was screaming at them to do otherwise. Of course, when he heard the song, he issued a new command and insisted they disregard his earlier one. They chose not to and tied him even tighter. Once past the island, Odysseus was glad they had. They were authorized and qualified to take forceful action against Odysseus’s command. And doing so was in fact in his best interest. His crew did the right thing.