Child wearing a child harness

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 for example in the context of societal and/or political realms and references.[1]

Some such as John Stuart Mill think paternalism can be appropriate towards children, saying:

"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 of as treating them as if they were children.[4]


The word paternalism derives from the adjective paternal, which entered the English language in the 15th century from Old French paternel (cf. Old Occitan paternal, as in Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese), itself from Medieval Latin paternalis.[5] The classical Latin equivalent was paternus "fatherly", from pater "father".[6]


Soft and hard

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. One cannot tell the person the bridge is damaged as he does not speak our language. According to soft paternalism, one would be justified in forcing him to not cross the bridge so one could find out whether he knows about the damage. If he knows and wants to jump off the bridge and commit suicide then one should allow him to. Hard paternalists say that at least sometimes one is entitled to prevent him from crossing the bridge and committing suicide.[1][clarification needed]

Pure and impure

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.[1]

Moral and welfare

Moral paternalism is where paternalism is justified to promote the moral well-being of a person(s) even if their welfare would not improve. For example, it could 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 they believe prostitution to be morally corrupting.[1]

Criteria for effective paternalism

Thomas Pogge argues that there are a number of criteria for paternalism.[7]


See also: Social engineering (political science) and Nanny state

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:

[T]he 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 

Mill, however, disregards his own analysis when it comes to colonial subjects. In On Liberty, he writes:

Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.

Mill above declares barbarians to be in need of paternalism. But he narrowly defines barbarism historically, geographically, and economically insofar as to declare it fit to describe the people he intends to describe as such.

Contemporary opponents of paternalism often appeal to the ideal of personal autonomy.[citation needed]

In society

Paternalism and slavery

A concept of paternalism functioned as a tool of justification during the slavery era, and the concept promoted the institution of the slavery. Masters, who were the owners of slaves, believed themselves that the concept of paternalism can justify their wrongdoings such as trading of slaves and punishment of their slaves. The masters believed that they are helping and rescuing slaves from poor conditions; therefore, the masters believed themselves as parent or savior of their slaves. Masters used the concept of paternalism to show that their behavior is not wrong or unethical. Not only by the masters, but slaves also exploited the concept of paternalism for their own benefit. For instance, slaves believed that enslavement would be better than the freedom. Slaves believed that they would be treated better as long as they build good relationship with their masters. Slaves also believed that they could get basic human needs such as food from their masters. Thus, the concept of paternalism for slaves was the tool that made slaves feel more comfortable and free.[citation needed] Walter Johnson introduces a concept of paternalism in Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market that mentions "Slave-market paternalism thus replayed the plots of proslavery propaganda and fiction: the good hearted slave at the side of the dying master; the slave who could be trusted to master himself; the slaveholder's saving interventions in the life of the unfortunate slave".[10] Even though slaves could benefit from the concept of paternalism by receiving abundant food and medical care, the concept can never justify the institution of slavery. Some libertarians[who?] consider paternalism, especially when imposed by the state to be a form of modern slavery.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Dworkin, Gerald (2020). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Paternalism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  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[ISBN missing]
  5. ^ "Paternal - Adjective". Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. March 2021. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  6. ^ "Paternal (adjective)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2023-12-21.
  7. ^ Pogge, Thomas (2008). World poverty and human rights (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 978-0745641430. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  8. ^ Mulligan, Erin R. "Paternalism and the Southern Hierarchy: How Slaves Defined Antebellum Southern Women" Archived 2020-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 2, August 2012.
  9. ^ "The Excuse of Paternalism in the Antebellum South: Ideology or Practice?" (PDF).
  10. ^ Johnson, Walter (February 2000). Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Harvard University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0674005396.

Further reading