From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about parent-child modeled relationships at a governmental level. For the concept as it relates to individual human beings, see Parenting.

Paternalism is behavior by an organization or state that limits some person or group's liberty or autonomy for what is presumed to be that person's or group's 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]

The word paternalism is from the Latin pater "father" via the adjective paternus "fatherly"; paternalism should be though distinguished from patriarchy. 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."[3] Paternalism towards adults is sometimes thought to treat them as if they were children.[4]

Soft and hard[edit]

The terms soft and hard are used in two quite different senses in this context. Philosophers, following Joel Feinberg's influential book Harm to Self (1986), usually use "hard paternalism" for paternalism towards a person whose action or choice is insufficiently voluntary to be genuinely his or hers. Soft paternalism in this usage means paternalism towards a person whose action or choice is sufficiently voluntary to be genuinely his or hers. Soft paternalism in this usage may also refer to interference with a person aimed to establish whether or not his or her action or choice is sufficiently voluntary. In contrast, economists and lawyers usually use "soft paternalism" for mild paternalism, that is paternalism that is not coercive, or not very "heavy-handed". For example, libertarian paternalism is soft paternalism in this sense. Hard paternalism in this usage is coercive paternalism.

Criteria for effective paternalism[edit]

Thomas Pogge argues that there are a number of criteria for paternalism.[5]

  • 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 "modest".[further explanation needed]
  • 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 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.[3]: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.[6] As a result of this conclusion, often the whites would manage basic rights of the enslaved such as child rearing and property.[7]

Paternalism also defined women's roles in the domestic sphere of society, due to their management of work and daily duties for the slaves. Many Americans felt like that without paternalism, the slaves would revert to their savage ways that undermine the social structure the south had. This concept both justified women's social presence and the morality of slavery in pre-Civil War American society.

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): 205-250.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Feinberg, Joel. 1986. Harm to Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 4
  5. ^ Pogge, Thomas (2008). World poverty and human rights (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 978-0-7456-4143-0. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Paternalism and the Southern Hierarchy: How Slavery Defined Antebellum Southern Women - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History". Retrieved 2016-03-07. 

External links[edit]