a blog about philosophy in public affairs

How could paternalism ever be a good thing?


Recently, as I was discussing with a friend of mine, the conversation brought us to the issue of paternalism. Taking the bad habit of playing the philosopher’s role, I said something like “You know, paternalism is actually not always wrong.” My friend reacted very surprised – as if I had said “You know, patriarchy is actually not always wrong.” And as it happens, for her, “paternalism” and “patriarchy” were closely linked – which I had never considered before.

They are linked, first, by etymology, though from different roots: “paternalism” derives from Latin (pater, father) and “patriarchy” from Greek (patria, descent, lineage; archè, domination, authority). But more importantly, they are linked by their connotations and assumptions. “The etymology of paternalism […] reflects the implicit social hierarchies of patriarchal cultures, in which fathers or male heads of families were understood to be authority figures responsible for the welfare of subordinates and dependents.” (Source: Britannica)

Although this origin of the word “paternalism” is easy to guess if you think about it for a second, I was using the word without consideration for its connotation. More exactly, I thought that the use of the word had superseded its original meaning, that most people were now using it without any intention to validate the patriarchal assumption that used to go with it. If one looks for example at the definition provided by Gerald Dworkin (who doesn’t notice the patriarchal etymology) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it seems that no patriarchal assumption is necessary to defend some forms of paternalism. Paternalism is defined as “the interference of a state or an individual with another person, against their will, and defended or motivated by a claim that the person interfered with will be better off or protected from harm”. And the canonical examples provided are anti-drug legislation, the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, and the withholding of relevant information concerning a patient’s condition by physicians. So, one could think that men have little to do with this.

Yet upon reflection, I think it would be a mistake to lose sight of the origin of the word. Many forms of paternalism (if not most) probably still reflect patriarchal structures or habits. It is probably because men have been used to making decisions for others that many of them are not hostile to paternalism. So, the awareness of the origin of the word should at least make us extra cautious when assessing the acceptability of different forms of paternalism. Because, I don’t think paternalism – as an act, not as a word – can be rejected altogether. There are cases that seem little controversial:

  • Parents taking some decisions for their children (whether as a father or a mother), such as reducing their exposure to TV or their consumption of sugar.
  • States incentivizing health-protecting behavior (drugs restriction, or taxes on cigarettes), at least when they are minimally democratic and deeply involved in the financing of health care.

These are examples of actions that could meet wide agreement and that do not seem to result from unjustified hierarchical social structures. Yet there are certainly other cases where making a decision for someone else, against that person’s will, is deeply problematic even if the intention is to promote that person’s interests. One patriarchal example that comes to my mind is the decision to forbid headscarves (in schools or in the administration, for example) to promote women’s freedom against their own choice. (Imposing a headscarf to protect women from men’s prying eyes being the opposite paternalist and patriarchal action.)

So, a first conclusion is that we need a normative account that helps discriminating between acceptable and inacceptable forms of paternalism. I haven’t had the chance to study the relevant literature in depth, but I would say that the following safeguards are required for paternalism to be acceptable:

  • The person for whom the decision is made is not capable of adequate autonomy, for example because they’re too young (example 1 above) or risk facing an addiction (example 2 above), or lack relevant information.
  • The action imposed to that person is widely accepted as more preferable than what the person is likely to do without the interference.
  • That person could not reasonably reject the interference in a discussion between equals (in authority and information).
  • The interference does not reflect an interest in preserving a form of domination or in promoting one’s controversial worldview (scarf example above).

And in light of history of the word, I would add a last requisite especially for us, men (although it might seem redundant, just to be sure):

  • When we engage in paternalism, we should be confident that a feminist woman, in our position, would not act differently.

Obviously, feminists are divided on many issues and will have different views on different forms of paternalism, but this additional requirement is just meant to invite us to question our patriarchal biases; it is certainly not sufficient.

The second conclusion is that we might want to find a better word to refer to acceptable forms of interferences in people’s choices to promote their own interests. Protectism?

Currently postdoc at KU Leuven, I hold a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium). My main research interests are democratic theory, theories of justice, and civic education.


Throwing tomato soup at van Gogh


Should you be grateful to nature?


  1. any old name

    Hi, thanks for your thoughts. I believe that paternalism (involving coercion) toward mentally competent people always always always belittles, dishonors and infantilizes them, and the paternalist is always always always acting from fear and/or egotistically. It’s dehumanizing for both parties. The State, of course, is always the worst. We can discuss the borders of mental competence (addicts have lucid states in which they could temporarily relinquish their right to autonomy while they detox, for example), but one’s compassion in no way takes precedence over another’s moral agency (assuming others are not harmed).

  2. Cheung Kin Hang

    I like to share with Pierre-Etienne’s view that when some people do something unjust, others including the authority should strive to correct it. The crux is that there should be a universally-agreeable understanding of justice that can guide all human beings’ decisions and actions.

    A universalized normative standard of decisions and actions by which how people’s rational pursuit of interests can be judged is needed.

    Not working as an academic, I present a new theory of justice in my work A Theory of Fairness and Justice which was just released on kindle. The theory is that the idea of justice should be constituted by two parts: the Golden Rule (of treating others as oneself) and a valuation system prioritizing basic human interests. Some philosophical proofs are offered to explain why there should be the two constituent parts for the theorization.

    The idea of justice demands that all human beings comply with the Golden Rule in the way that they strive to protect their and their counterparts’ basic interests. It is common that many people like doing dangerous things including abusing drugs and refusing to wear seatbelts, no matter if they are of the majority social group or not. To prevent and correct these doings, there should be institutions and social forces that uphold justice with effective means.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén