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Paternalism (or parentalism) is behaviour, by a person, organization or state, which limits some person or group's liberty or autonomy for their own good.[1] Paternalism can also imply that the behaviour is against or regardless of the will of a person, or also that the behaviour expresses an attitude of superiority.[2]

The word paternalism is from the Latin pater for father, though paternalism should be distinguished from patriarchy. Some, such as J.S. 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]

Examples of paternalism include laws requiring the use of motorcycle helmets, a parent forbidding their children to engage in dangerous activities, and a psychiatrist confiscating sharp objects from someone who is suicidally depressed.

Soft and hard paternalism[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 "soft paternalism" for paternalism towards a person whose action or choice is insufficiently voluntary to be genuinely his or hers. Hard 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.

Opponents of paternalism[edit]

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.[5]

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

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. ^ 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. ^ Mill, J.S. [1859]/(1991) ‘On Liberty’, published in Gray, John (ed), John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.14

External links[edit]

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