Abstract submitted to a conference on political philosophy. Update 2018-06-13: The abstract was not accepted by the organizers.


Paternalist Patrick effectively hinders Pamela the Prostitute from selling sex by following her everywhere, shouting at potential customers, taking pictures of them, and threatening to call them out in public. As a moral individualist, Patrick believes that interventions with a person’s life and liberties must be justified with regards to her specifically, and not with regards to her as a member of some social group. His interventions with Pamela’s business, Patrick argues, are justified as it is not Pamela’s “genuine wish” to sell sex. Pamela “does not really want to be a prostitute,” and “makes decisions that are not really hers.”

Patrick’s argument is about authenticity. More specifically, it is about the authenticity of desires; the basic component in preference forming. Paternalist interventions are justified if the targeted person holds non-authentic desires.

The argument assumes that the status of desires in terms of authenticity can be reliably observed. If it cannot, the justificatory force of Patrick’s argument is significantly weakened. I argue that the assumption is flawed, as the authenticity of desires cannot be reliably observed with reasonable means, and that the paternalist argument therefore fails.

My argument builds on a taxonomy of characteristics displayed by different theories of authenticity. The theories include, among others, Frankfurt’s, Dworkin’s, Meyer’s, Christman’s, Banner and Szmukler’s, and Elster’s. In the taxonomy, which takes a three-by-two shape, theories of authenticity can display sanctionist, originist, and coherentist characteristics. These are the taxonomy’s categories. In sanctionist theories, i.e., theories built on characteristics typical of sanctionist ideals, authenticity concerns the desire-holder’s attitude toward her desires. In originist theories, authenticity concerns the origin of a desire. In coherentist theories, authenticity concerns the coherence of a desire-holder’s set of desires. Furthermore, the characteristics can be either cognitivist or non-cognitivist. In cognitivist theories, authenticity is a matter of rational deliberation; non-cognitivist theories do not commit to that. These are the taxonomy’s classes. A theory can display characteristics from different categories (to different degrees), but the classes are mutually exclusive so that a theory is either one or the other.

No category, class, or combination thereof, enables an observer with reasonable means to reliably determine the status of a desire in terms of authenticity. Therefore, Paternalist Patrick’s argument does not justify his interventions with Pamela the Prostitute’s business.

My argument and the taxonomy contributes to autonomy theory and the debate on paternalism. It is applicable also in other contexts, such as, for instance, informed consent in bioethics: The validity of a patient’s or research subject’s consent to a medical intervention or research participation does not hinge on the authenticity of their desires. Although authenticity may be philosophically interesting, it remains practically meaningless in the present applications.