Thinker's Corner

For Your Own Good? paternalism re-examined (British Humanist Association, 47 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8SP, £2), by the Humanist Philosophers' Group, looks at the philosophical arguments against paternalism. This booklet is accessible rather than profound. As the "nanny state" encroaches ever more on our lives, this is a timely debate, and also one that is beset by moral contradictions - there are laws against drugs, but not boxing. Two main objections to paternalism are raised: first, that despite our shortcomings, we as adult individuals are still the best judges of what is right for ourselves; and second, that there is intrinsic human value in being autonomous and making our own mistakes, as long as they don't harm others. The problem arises when we act in a way that threatens our own future autonomy: for example, by taking addictive drugs or attempting suicide. The authors conclude that we should be suspicious of paternalism, but shouldn't object automatically to all its concerns.

Putting Back the P in PLC (Industrial Society, 48 Bryanston Square, London W1H 2EA, £10), by Will Hutton, looks into the public accountability of plcs. Hutton states that the extension of limited liability to company owners and directors in the 19th century was meant to encourage new investment and was not meant to challenge the notion that private rights involved responsibility to the public. The public consequence of private action was recognised by companies and the state. With the growth of Keynesian economics and the welfare state, public companies in the 20th century forgot completely that they were liable to the public. Hutton calls for government to show leadership and establish universal rules that would apply to a company's relationship with its employees, shareholders, the local community and the environment. UK companies must show social responsibility and ethical practice voluntarily within five years, or government should bring in a new Companies Act.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube