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Paternalism is action limiting a person's or group's liberty or autonomy which is intended to promote their own good.[1] Paternalism can also imply that the behavior is against or regardless of the will of a person, or also that the behavior expresses an attitude of superiority.[2] Paternalism, paternalistic and paternalist have all been used as a pejorative.[3]

The word paternalism is from the Latin pater "father" via the adjective paternus "fatherly". Some, such as John Stuart Mill, think paternalism to be appropriate towards children: "It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood."[4] Paternalism towards adults is sometimes thought to treat them as if they were children.[5]


Soft and hard

Soft Paternalism is the view that paternalism is only justified if an action to be committed is involuntary. John Stuart Mill gives the example of a person about to walk across a damaged bridge. We can't tell the person the bridge is damaged as he doesn't speak your language. According to Soft paternalism we would be justified in forcing him to not cross the bridge so we could find out whether he knows about the damage. If he knows and wants to jump off the bridge and commit suicide then we should allow him to. Hard paternalists say that at least sometimes we are entitled to prevent him from crossing the bridge and committing suicide.[3]

Pure and impure

Pure paternalism is where the person(s) having their liberty or autonomy taken away is those being protected. Impure paternalism is where the persons that have their liberty or autonomy violated is not just the persons being protected.[3]

Moral and welfare

Moral paternalism is where paternalism is justified to promote the moral well being of a person(s) even if their welfare wouldn't improve. For example, it would be argued that someone should be prevented from prostitution even if they make a decent living off it and their health is protected. A moral paternalist would argue that it is ethical considering prostitution is morally corrupting.[3]

Criteria for effective paternalism

Thomas Pogge argues that there are a number of criteria for paternalism.[6]

  • The concept should work within human flourishing. Generally accepted items such as nutrition, clothing, shelter, certain basic freedoms may be acceptable by a range of religious and social backgrounds.
  • The criteria should be minimally intrusive.
  • The requirements of the criteria should not be understood as exhaustive; leaving societies the ability to modify the criteria based on their own needs.
  • The supplementary considerations introduced by such more ambitious criteria of justice must not be allowed to outweigh the modest considerations.[further explanation needed]


In his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke argues (against Robert Filmer) that political and paternal power cannot be identified.

John Stuart Mill opposes state paternalim on the grounds that individuals know their own good better than the state does, that the moral equality of persons demands respect for others' liberty, and that paternalism disrupts the development of an independent character. In On Liberty he writes:

...the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.[4]:14

Contemporary opponents of paternalism often appeal to the ideal of personal autonomy.

In society

In the southern United States before the Civil War, paternalism was a concept used to justify the legitimacy of slavery. Women would present themselves as mothers for the slaves, or protectors that provided benefits the slaves would not get on their own. Plantation mistresses would attempt to civilize their workers by providing food, shelter, and affection. These women would justify that the conditions for freed blacks were poorer than those who were under the mistresses' protection. Paternalism was used as an argument against the emancipation of slavery due to these mistresses providing better living conditions than the enslaved's counterpart in the factory-based north.[7] As a result of this conclusion, often the whites would manage basic rights of the enslaved such as child rearing and property.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Dworkin, Gerald, "Paternalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. ^ Shiffrin, Seana. 2000. "Paternalism, Unconscionability Doctrine, and Accommodation". Philosophy and Public Affairs 29(3): 205–50.
  3. ^ a b c d Gerald Dworkin. "Paternalism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  4. ^ a b Mill, J.S. [1859]/(1991) "On Liberty", published in Gray, John (ed), John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  5. ^ Feinberg, Joel. 1986. Harm to Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 4
  6. ^ Pogge, Thomas (2008). World poverty and human rights (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 978-0-7456-4143-0. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  7. ^ Erin R. Mulligan, “Paternalism and the Southern Hierarchy: How Slaves Defined Antebellum Southern Women,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 2, August 2012 [1]
  8. ^ "The Excuse of Paternalism in the Antebellum South: Ideology or Practice?" (PDF). 

External links

  • Mill and Paternalism, by Gregory Claeys. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Paternalism - New World Encyclopedia
  • Paternalism, by Peter Suber. From Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher Berry Gray, Garland Pub. Co., 1999, vol. II, pp. 632–35.
  • Paternalism, by Gerald Dworkin. From The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Counting the Dragon's Teeth and Claws: The Definition of Hard Paternalism by Thaddeus Mason Pope. From 20 Georgia State University Law Review 659–722 (2004)
  • Monstrous Impersonation: A Critique of Consent-Based Justifications for Hard Paternalism by Thaddeus Mason Pope. From 73 UMKC Law Review 681–713 (2005)
  • Is Public Health Paternalism Really Never Justified? A Response to Joel Feinberg by Thaddeus Mason Pope. From 30 Oklahoma City University Law Review 121–207 (2005)
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