Bioethics Blogs

Paternalism up a Mountain

“Paternalism” is one of those words that has a hell of a lot of power.  On several occasions, I’ve seen it used as a trump to shut down an argument: saying “But that’s paternalism” is, at least sometimes, treated as a way of showing that anyone arguing in favour of the allegedly paternalistic action is an imbecile, and has therefore lost the argument by default.  I suspect that this is due to a bastardisation of the (already iffy) “Georgetown Mantra”; but it does seem to be a position horribly common in medical schools.  It’s also very unsophisticated.  Whether or not something is paternalistic seems to me to be less important than whether it’s justified.  Something might be unjustified, and the reason for that might be because it’s paternalistic; but it doesn’t follow from that that no paternalism could be justified.  In just the same way, too much bleach or bleach in the wrong place is something you’d want to avoid; but it doesn’t follow that you should avoid bleach at all times and at all costs.

I want here to tell you a story based on something that happened just over a week ago.  My Dad and I had – oh, don’t ask us why – signed up to climb Kilimanjaro.  We were following the Machame route, which slowly circles around the mountain for five days, before a final push at midnight on the sixth in time for sunrise at the top.  Most of the campsites are just a shade under 4000m above sea level; this gives you some time to acclimatise.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.