The government sets many different restrictions on personal autonomy in the name of public wellbeing—whether it’s restrictions on gambling, taxes on cigarettes, or laws that mandate seatbelts in cars. But what are the legal foundations and limits to government paternalism? Last winter, Dr. Christoph Krönke taught a seminar to second-year law students on the theme of government paternalism, exploring both the legal theory behind paternalism and specific contemporary issues where paternalism and enhancing life intersect.
What was your Enhancing Life Studies course about and what did you learn by teaching it?
The topic was very similar to my general project theme, which focuses on the question: who decides on what enhancing life actually means? Is it the state or the individual? That was the basic question of the course, and we approached it from many different perspectives. We looked at the history of thought on paternalism and discussed constitutional law as the legal basis for paternalistic policy. And we had some very concrete examples of government paternalism to work through: paternalistic consumer protection, paternalistic health care policy, etc. All of this was designed to get the students to think about the legal foundations and limitations of enhancing life through government paternalism. Because it was so directly related to the focus of my project, I learned a great deal from my students’ questions and insights and had exciting new directions to pursue when the course was completed.
What did you have the students do?
The course was designed as a basic seminar for second-year law students. Each student had to prepare a written paper dealing with one specific sub-topic of the course: for example, paternalism and public financing or paternalistic data protection. After the first few months of the course, each student handed in an outline, and after they submitted the paper at the end of the semester, we had a very intense weekend of presentations where each student gave a 20-30 minute presentation on his or her paper and then we discussed it. Because they had to research and look out for what has been written on each of the topics in legal scholarship, we were able to see which topics were innovative and which were less so. The course was designed to really discover the topics with the students.
What is the public relevance of this material?
The course had a fairly broad focus because in Germany, not all law students will go on to be lawyers. So I wanted to deal with questions that would be relevant for the students until the end of their studies and beyond. For example, human rights: asking what are human rights, how do they work, and what kind of protection do they give against the power of the state? Of course, the topics varied somewhat—the history of legal paternalistic thought is not something that would necessarily be interesting for the wider public, but euthanasia, for example, is a topic that is constantly discussed, at least by the German public. Data protection, too, is an issue that is very much in the public discussion in terms of public policy and paternalism. So I wanted to be sure we were engaging with a wide array of topics that had some very concrete relevance for the wider debate, so that the students would really think about how these issues play out in the public discussion.
Were there any surprises as you taught the course?
The biggest surprise was how much I learned for my own project. One important point was that I had been thinking about data protection only with respect to personal autonomy—if I willingly disclose my personal data, why should the state restrict my actions? But the whole phenomenon of big data is not only about people being affected by the processing of data that they have disclosed. A lot of people are affected by the processing of “big data” which have been retrieved from other people. This was a point that was raised by a student during the discussion and I didn’t have it on my mind before. So these conversations were incredibly valuable for me.
Do you have any changes for the next time you teach it, or any elements you’ll be sure to preserve?
I think I will drop some of the topics—for example, paternalism in public financing was not a topic that really seemed like it was worth teaching again. But I’ll be giving another course in the next year about morality and politics, and some of these topics might reappear during this second course. It was also interesting, during the class, to focus on the American constitution, basically in a comparative perspective. We looked at how fundamental rights are guaranteed in the American constitution and how those rights work in comparison with the European Human Rights Charter or the German constitution. In comparative legal studies, you actually learn a lot about your own law and your own constitution if you look at how other states’ laws work. So I think that was especially good for the younger law students.