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Traditional cultural paternalism: Father Junipero Serra in a modern portrayal at Mission San Juan Capistrano, California

Paternalism often refers to the hierarchic pattern of the family applied as a paradigm to state policy; it also can refer to paternalistic attitudes and actions by individuals and non-state institutions. Paternalism is often justified as a policy that prevents others from doing harm to themselves.

The word comes from paternal authority and there lies one of its best jusitifications: if it is considered that someone under the age of 18 may be very intelligent and responsible, yet still forbidden from smoking, drinking, buying violent films, etc., it has to be asked why a person over the age of 18 who is much less intelligent and responsible is allowed to do so. To a paternalist, the claim that the less able members of society should be watched over is seen as a responsibility rather than tyranny.


Paternalistic practices

Paternalism and alternatives

For example, someone would be practicing a paternalistic philosophy by using force or threat of punishment to prevent another person from committing suicide, from taking addictive or harmful drugs, or from committing any action considered harmful by the paternalist. Similarly, a paternalist may argue that he/she is acting to serve the long-term wants or needs of another or a group of people even those these alleged beneficiaries may disagree. A paternalist, then, by definition, believes that he knows more (or is more rational) than the person he/she is trying to prevent from (allegedly) harming his/herself. However, the paternalist, in so doing, limits or undermines the freedom of choice of the person "harming" his/herself in exchange for her well-being. In other words, the paternalist is using a position of power over others to make decisions for them.

Many accept or even praise paternalism when it is applied by parents to their children. But a key issue concerns who should and should not be treated like children. Young adults often complain about paternalism, as do people with disabilities, the mentally ill, and the mentally retarded. Racism sometimes involves paternalism toward ethnic minorities (such as African-American slavery in the United States), just as sexism sometimes involves male paternalism toward women.

In many cases, however, charges of "paternalism" are a matter of opinion and/or depend on the empirical details of the case being discussed. After all, an individual's "free choice" to commit suicide, take harmful drugs, etc. may have external costs, severely harming other people without their choosing to suffer those costs. For example, suicides and drug-abusers often damage their families' and neighbors' finances and lives.

Alternatives to Paternalism include individual autonomy and some conceptions of democracy.


Governments are often faced with the choice of adopting various kinds of paternalistic legislation. For many, a classic example of this is the seatbelt law. If not wearing a seatbelt has no harmful effects on others, it can be reasonably argued that such a law is a paternalistic and unjustified infringement on a person's liberty. However, it may also be argued that such laws minimize the harm to those who crash their cars into those who drive without seatbelts and that injuries arising from nonuse of seatbelts lead to higher auto insurance premia for all drivers. (Encouraging adults to wear seatbelts also creates models of behavior for those for whom most would agree that paternalism is valid, i.e., children.) In that case, the charges of paternalism must again be balanced against the perceived social cost of the undesired activity in democratic decision-making, while less paternalistic solutions should be sought.

Often, social-welfare programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children or Temporary Aid to Needy Families [1] ( (which replaced A.F.D.C.) in the United States are extremely paternalistic, in that they impose all sorts of bureaucratic or top-down restrictions on the freedom of recipients of this kind of government help.

Among the most controversial of these issues in which charges of "paternalism" are made concern the ban on gay marriage, laws against sodomy, anti-abortion laws, gun control, policies such as curfews that are at odds with the youth rights movement, and the illegal status of marijuana. Among the most famous examples of a massive failure of perceived paternalism was the era of Prohibition in the United States. This was a period of time on the 1920s/30s in which alcohol was deemed an illegal substance. During this time people held "meetings" in which illegal alcohol was bought, sold and consumed.

It is not just governments which suffer from paternalism. For example, a large corporation may make decisions that have large social costs -- such as pollution costs -- on the neighborhoods of its operations and the world. Corporate defenders embrace a paternalistic philosophy when they argue that the benefits of corporate activities -- including those that produce the pollution -- will lead to net benefits for those affected, that the benefits will " trickle down" to others, etc. Employers often use paternalistic arguments to justify rules and restrictions on their employees' activities. Similarly, non-governmental or quasi-governmental organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are being paternalistic when they argue that the short-term pain suffered (most by the poor and working classes) due to their neo-liberal policies of austerity, privatization, free flow of capital, and the like are more than justfied by the long-term benefits to these populations. That is, though the laissez-faire philosophy of "free markets" is not paternalistic per se, it can be imposed in a paternalistic way.

Even an individual may use paternalistic arguments to justify his or her activities. For example, someone who smokes tobacco may try to minimize the effects of second-hand smoke on others by saying "they can live with it" or similar.

Even when organizations or individuals are being charitable, paternalism can be involved. For example, in some places, people are encouraged to give homeless people vouchers which can only be spent on food and the like, rather than cash, which might be spent on alcohol or drugs. While this may be a good program in many ways, it involves paternalism in that it denies the homeless individual freedom of choice.



Among many family/state paradigms in traditional cultures, that expressed in some Greek philosophy is particularly familiar in the West. The family as a model for the organization of the State is an idea in political philosophy that originated in the Socratic/Platonic principle of Macrocosm/microcosm, which states that lower levels of reality mirror upper levels of reality and vice versa. In particular, monarchists have argued that the state mirrors the patriarchal family, with the people obeying the king as children obey their father.

The Family/State paradigm was often expressed as a form of justification for aristocratic rule as justified in observations of the cosmos.

Plutarch records a laconic saying of the Dorians attributed to Lycurgus. Asked why he didn't establish a democracy in Lacedaemon, Lycurgus responded, "Begin, friend, and set it up in your family". The Doric Greeks of Sparta seemed to mirror the family institution and organization in their form of government. (9)

Aristotle argued that the schema of authority and subordination exists in the whole of nature. He gave examples such as man and animal (domestic), man and wife, slaves and children. Further, he claimed that it is found in any animal, as the relationship he believed to exist between soul and body, "which the former is by nature the ruling and the later subject factor" (1). Aristotle further claimed that "the government of a household is a monarchy since every house is governed by a single ruler". (2) Later, he said that husbands exercise a republican government over their wives and monarchical government over their children, and that they exhibit political office over slaves and royal office over the family in general. (3)

Arius Didymus in Stobaeus, 1st century A. D., wrote that "A primary kind of association (politeia) is the legal union of a man and woman for begetting children and for sharing life." From the collection of households a village is formed and from villages a city, "So just as the household yields for the city the seeds of its formation, thus it yields the constitution (politeia)". Further, he claims that "Connected with the house is a pattern of monarchy, of aristocracy and of democracy. The relationship of parents to children is monarchic, of husbands to wives aristocratic, of children to one another democratic." (4)

Modern thinkers have taken the paradigm as a given in societies where hierarchical structures appeared natural. Louis de Bonald wrote as if the family were a miniature state. In his analysis of the family relationships of father, mother and child, De Bonald related these to the functions of a state: the father is the power, the mother is the minister and the child as subject. As the father is "active and strong" and the child is "passive or weak", the mother is the "median term between the two extremes of this continuous proportion". Like many apologists for family/state paradigm, De Bonald justified his analysis by quoting and interpreting passages from the Bible:

"(It) calls man the reason, the head, the power of woman: Vir caput est mulieris {man is head of woman} says St. Paul. It calls woman the helper or minister of man: "Let us make man," says Genesis, "a helper similar to him." It calls the child a subject, since it tells it, in a thousand places, to obey its parents". (5) Louis de Bonald also sees divorce as the first stage of disorder in the state (the principle of macrocosm/microcosm). He insists that the deconstitution of the family brings about the deconstitution of state, with "The Kyklos" not far behind. (6)

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn draws a connection between the family and monarchy.

"Due to its inherent patriarchalism, monarchy fits organically into the ecclesiastic and familistic pattern of a Christian society. (Compare the teaching of Pope Leo XIII: 'Likewise the powers of fathers of families preseves expressly a certain image and form of the authority which is in God, from which all paternity in heaven and earth receives its name— Eph 3.15') The relationship between the King as 'father of the fatherland' and the people is one of mutual love". (7)

George Lakoff claims that the left/right distinction in politics reflects a difference between perceived ideals of the family; for right-wing people, the ideal is a patriarchial and moralistic family; for left-wing people, the ideal is an unconditionally loving family. As a result, Lakoff argues, both sides find each others' views not only immoral, but incomprehensible, since they appear to violate each sides' deeply held beliefs about personal morality in the sphere of the family.

More modern views

Opponents of paternalism, such as John Stuart Mill, claim that liberty supersedes safety in terms of actions that only affect oneself. Advocates of paternalistic policies often believe that they possess some sort of "higher" knowledge than those whose behaviour they seek to limit, such as a religious, ethical, or philosophical doctrine, and will argue that while it is not moral to deprive someone of their liberty in a general situation, it is correct in that specific instance.

In favour, it could be said that every state is "paternalist" to a degree. Even the state's creation and protection of individual property rights might be interpreted as "paternalistic". The descriptions of the origin of the state by Aristotle see it as an extension of the family and this description seems a lot more realistic than the social contract analogies of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Rawls.

Libertarians are known as the most fervent opponents of paternalism. Their ideology is certainly consistent, although critics claim that it is excessively simple. Few political theorists have ever completely rejected paternalism. Robert Nozick -- who is generally seen as a founding father of modern libertarianism -- still talked of exceptional cases of immoral behaviour where society should intervene. John Stuart Mill said that some offensive behaviour that could take place in private should be banned in public (e.g., sexual acts). Mill also said that anyone who commits a crime whilst drunk should be banned from drinking thereafter. Schopenhauer claimed that the state should be restricted to "protecting men from each other and from external attack", yet he lived in 19th century Germany and seemed to be mainly criticising laws that promoted Christian ethics in his political writings.

Paternalism and Abortion

Whilst those who are in favor of legal abortion see a ban on it as paternalistic, many who are pro-life claim that they are, on the contrary, upholding the individual rights of the foetus against violation.

See also


  1. Politics, Aristotle, Loeb Classical Library, Bk I, §II 8-10; 1254a 20-35; pg 19-21
  2. Politics, Bk I, §11,21;1255b 15-20; pg 29.
  3. Politics, Bk I, §V, 1-2; 1259a 35-1259b 1; pg 57-59.
  4. Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, ed. By M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, Carsten Colpe, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, l995.
  5. On Divorce, Louis de Bonald, trans. By Nicholas Davidson, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, l993. pp 44-46.
  6. On Divorce, Louis de Bonald, pp 88-89; 149.
  7. Liberty or Equality, Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, pg 155.
  8. George Lakoff, What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't, ISBN 0226467961
  9. Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. by John Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, The Modern Library (div of Random House, Inc). Bio on Lycurgus; pg 65.

External Links

  • Paternalism (, by Peter Suber. From Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher Berry Gray, Garland Pub. Co., 1999, vol. II, pp. 632-635.
  • Paternalism (, by Gerald Dworkin. From The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.da:Paternalisme

de:Paternalismus nl:Paternalisme fi:Paternalismi


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