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Child on a Leash

Paternalism is action that limits a person's or group's liberty or autonomy and 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", which in Medieval Latin became paternalis. Some, such as John Stuart Mill, think paternalism to be appropriate towards children: saying of liberty "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 of as treating them as if they were children.[5]


Soft and hard[edit]

Soft paternalism is the view that paternalism is justified only 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[edit]

Pure paternalism is paternalism where the person(s) having their liberty or autonomy taken away are those being protected. Impure paternalism occurs when the class of people whose liberty or autonomy is violated by some measure is wider than the group of persons thereby protected.[3]

Moral and welfare[edit]

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[edit]

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 are not the same.

John Stuart Mill opposes state paternalism 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[edit]

  • 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]
  • Paternalism was also used against Women's Suffrage, with opponents of women's suffrage saying that granting women the right to vote would make their lives harder and separate them from their families.
  • In 2018, the Mayor of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains in the French Alps, announced a permit system for climbing the Mont Blanc via the popular modern normal route on the French side of the mountain, in order to restrict the number of aspiring climbers and to diminish the large number of fatal accidents on this route. To the press he declared to be "ashamed for those who continue each year to justify these human sacrifices by principles of pseudo-freedom". [9] [10]

See also[edit]


  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).
  9. ^ Mont-Blanc : le maire de St Gervais menace de fermer le refuge du Goûter
  10. ^ Permis pour gravir le Mont-Blanc : que sait-on des “brigades blanches” qui seront chargées du contrôle?

External links[edit]