From Utilitarianism to Paternalism: When Behavioral Economics meets Moral Philosophy

Cyril Hédoin

Table of Contents


Most behavioral economists take the normative implications of their experimental findings to be broadly paternalistic. They tend to suggest that the results of behavioral economics logically entail the extension of the set of public interventions on the market. In this article, I show that this conclusion follows from an implicit normative reasoning that is unsustainable because behavioral economists remain committed to standard welfare economics. I suggest that the behavioral economists’ defense of paternalism can be understood as an attempt to maximize a social welfare function taking into account the fact that individuals make incoherent choices. But this defense depends on a theory of rational preferences that behavioral economists do not have. Moreover, a defense of paternalism in a welfarist framework leads to downplay the agency dimension of persons. Alternative defenses of soft paternalism may exist but likely require that normative behavioral economics gives up welfarism.

Classification JEL : A13, B41, D03, D60


  • behavioral economics
  • soft paternalism
  • moral philosophy
  • multiple selves
  • welfare economics