Paternalism refers to a practice or attitude where individuals, organizations, or governments make decisions on behalf of others, purportedly for their best interests, often without their input or against their will.
The term suggests that those in power act like a “patriarch” (or father), determining what they believe is best for the “children” or those under their care or jurisdiction.
There are different views on paternalism. Some argue that it is necessary to protect individuals from harm or from making poor decisions, while others believe it infringes upon individual autonomy and freedom. The justification and appropriateness of paternalistic actions are often subjects of debate in moral, political, and legal philosophy.
Definition of Paternalism
A common definition of paternalism would be:
“Paternalistic interventions are those in which one person interferes with another’s autonomy against their will but for their own good.” (Lynch, 2015, p. 116)
Here, we see two requirements for a paternalistic act: limitation of liberty and concern for that person’s own good. Other definitions also contain this element:
“Paternalism is commonly held to be wrong to the extent that it violates something good, autonomy.” (Nys, 2007)
However, some scholars, in particular Quong (2011), argue that this common definition is insufficient in some circumstances because we can sometimes act paternalistically without restricting another person’s autonomy and liberty.
For example, if one person were to convince another to study for their exams for another 30 minutes by offering an incentive, this could be seen as paternalistic. In this case, we see someone who is attempting to coerce someone into doing something for their own good, being “motivated by a negative judgment” about another person’s ability “to make the right decision” (Quong, 2011) about their own personal welfare, interests, or values.
Therefore, Quong’s definition of paternalism does not demand an element of deprivation of autonomy or liberty. Quong notes that paternalism can simply involve acts taken for someone else’s good based on a negative assessment of that person’s own capacity to behave in their own interests (Quong, 2011).
- Adding Fluoride to Public Water Supplies: Many governments add fluoride to public water supplies to reduce the incidence of tooth decay in the population. This is a form of paternalism because individuals do not get to choose whether they consume fluoridated water or not. The decision is made for them by public health officials who believe that the benefits of reduced tooth decay outweigh the potential risks or objections individuals might have.
- Mandatory Seatbelt Laws: In many countries, it’s mandatory for drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts while in a moving vehicle. Governments enforce these laws based on the rationale that wearing seatbelts significantly reduces the risk of injury or death in car accidents. Even if an individual believes they should have the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a seatbelt, the law limits this choice for their safety.
- Censorship of Media Content: Some governments censor films, TV shows, books, or other media that they deem inappropriate or harmful for the public. This is a paternalistic action because the government is deciding what content is suitable for its citizens, rather than allowing them to choose for themselves. The rationale is often that certain content might have harmful effects on individuals or society at large, even if some people disagree with these judgments.
- Banning Trans Fats in Foods: Some cities or countries have banned the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants and food products. Trans fats have been linked to various health issues, including heart disease. By banning them, authorities aim to protect public health, even if it means limiting the choices of consumers and food producers.
- Mandatory Vaccination Programs: Some countries require children to be vaccinated against certain diseases before they can attend school. The goal is to achieve herd immunity and protect the broader population from outbreaks. While vaccines are beneficial for public health, mandatory programs take away the choice from parents about whether to vaccinate their children.
- Limiting Access to Harmful Substances: Some countries have banned or restricted the sale of substances due to its potentially harmful effects. Authorities often limit access to certain substances when there’s evidence they might pose health risks, even if some individuals believe they should have the right to decide whether to consume them.
- Restrictions on Extreme Sports or Activities: Certain extreme sports, like BASE jumping from specific locations, might be prohibited due to the high risk of injury or death. Governments sometimes restrict activities that they deem too dangerous, even if participants are aware of the risks and willingly accept them.
- Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws: Some cities require cyclists, especially children, to wear helmets when riding. The intention is to reduce the risk of head injuries. While many cyclists might feel they should have the choice of whether or not to wear a helmet, these laws prioritize safety over individual freedom of choice and presume we won’t wear one of our own accord.
- Soda and Sugary Drink Taxes: Some cities or countries have implemented a tax on sodas and other sugary drinks to discourage their consumption. High sugar intake is linked to various health issues such as obesity and diabetes. By taxing these drinks, authorities aim to reduce consumption, even if it means limiting the financial choices of consumers.
- Curfews for Minors: Certain cities enforce curfews that restrict minors from being out in public places during specified late-night hours. The goal is to protect young people from potential harm or criminal activities during late hours. While this limits the freedom of movement for minors, it’s seen as a protective measure.
- Restrictions on Over-the-Counter Medications: Some countries limit the quantity of certain over-the-counter medications, that citizens and resident can purchase at a time. Such restrictions are put in place to prevent the misuse of these medications. While it might inconvenience some individuals, the restrictions are in place for broader public safety.
- Banning of Plastic Bags: Many cities around the world have banned or put a tax on single-use plastic bags at retail stores. The goal is to reduce environmental pollution and promote the use of reusable bags. Even though this might be seen as limiting consumer choice, the policy is implemented with environmental protection in mind.
- Limitations on Drone Use: Many places have restrictions on where and when drones can be flown, especially near airports or government buildings. These limitations are set to ensure public safety and privacy. While drone enthusiasts might want the freedom to fly their drones everywhere, these laws are set to prevent potential mishaps or misuse.
- Mandatory Voting: Some countries, like Australia, require their citizens to vote in national elections. The idea is to ensure a more representative outcome and civic participation. While some might see this as an infringement on personal choice (to abstain from voting), the policy is put in place for the best interests of the individuals – so they can live in a thriving democracy.
- Limiting Junk Food in Schools: Some school districts or countries have banned or limited the sale of junk food and sugary drinks in school cafeterias and vending machines. The intention is to promote healthier eating habits among students and combat childhood obesity. By controlling the food options available, authorities aim to ensure better nutrition for students, even if it restricts their dietary choices.
- Parental Controls on Digital Devices: Many digital devices and online platforms offer parental controls to restrict content deemed inappropriate for children. These controls, often recommended or even mandated by regulators, are designed to shield children from potentially harmful digital content. While it might limit the range of content a child can access, it’s seen as a safeguard against exposure to inappropriate material.
- Regulation of Cosmetic Surgery: Some countries have age restrictions or mandatory waiting periods for elective cosmetic surgeries. These regulations are put in place to ensure that individuals have ample time to reflect on their decisions and understand the risks associated. While it might delay or limit a person’s choice to undergo a procedure, it’s implemented with the individual’s long-term well-being in mind.
- Restricted Access to Dangerous Locations: Tourist spots that are potentially hazardous, like certain cliff edges or unstable structures, might be fenced off or have restricted access. Authorities restrict access to protect visitors from potential accidents. Even if adventurers want to explore these areas, the restrictions are there to prevent potential harm.
- Tanning Bed Restrictions for Minors: Some jurisdictions have age restrictions on the use of tanning beds, prohibiting their use by minors. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning devices can increase the risk of harm. These laws are set up to protect young individuals, who might not be fully aware of the risks, from potential harm.
- Restrictions on Fireworks Sales and Usage: Many places have restrictions or bans on the sale and use of fireworks by individuals. Fireworks can be dangerous, leading to injuries or fires if not used safely. By limiting their sale and use, authorities aim to prevent potential accidents caused by people using them.
- Mandatory Cooling-off Periods for Major Purchases: Some jurisdictions require a “cooling-off” period for certain major purchases, such as timeshares or high-cost loans, during which the consumer can change their mind and cancel the transaction without penalty. The intention is to protect consumers from making impulsive decisions they might regret later. While this might seem like an infringement on immediate consumer choice, it’s designed to ensure that individuals have adequate time to consider their decisions.
- Banning of Certain Dietary Supplements: Some countries have banned or restricted the sale of certain dietary supplements that have been linked to health risks. Some supplements can have harmful side effects or interact negatively with other consumables. By controlling their sale, authorities aim to protect individuals from potential health risks, even if it restricts their choice of supplements.
- Banning of Kinder Surprises in the USA: The U.S. banned the sale of Kinder Surprise eggs for many years. The ban was in place because the chocolate egg contains a non-edible toy inside, which could be a choking hazard for children. While popular and deemed safe in many other countries, the U.S. authorities restricted its sale because they didn’t trust parents to keep their children from choking on the toys inside.
- Banning of Lawn Darts: Lawn darts, or “jarts,” were banned from sale in the U.S. due to safety concerns. These outdoor game items have sharp points and were responsible for several injuries and fatalities. To protect individuals, especially children, from potential harm, the sale and possession of lawn darts were prohibited.
- Building Codes for Upgrading Homes: In many municipalities, homeowners who wish to make significant upgrades or renovations to their homes must adhere to specific building codes and often obtain the necessary permits before starting the work. Building codes are established to ensure that all construction and modifications to homes are safe, structurally sound, and meet certain standards. This presupposes individuals won’t take care to construct safe buildings, so the government deems it right to intervene to keep them safe.
Two Types of Paternalism
There are many ways to dissect paternalism. One way is the distinction between negative and positive paternalism (Sneddon, 2013).
By comparing these types, we can explore the morality of paternalism. While some, like John Steward Mill, argue that paternalism is never morally justified, many defend one or both of the following types as examples of beneficence.
1. Negative Paternalism
Negative paternalism occurs when liberty or autonomy is taken from another individual to protect them from harm. Hence, it is often called ‘harm paternalism’ (Sneddon, 2013).
This is our common view of paternalism, where freedom of choice is taken from someone or else they will be directly harmed. It is simply the imposition of rules that prevent people from doing something.
Societies deny people the right things all the time. Without this denial of absolute autonomy, we would life in a world without rules or laws. Negative paternalism is inherent in many laws, like those prohibiting us from speeding so we won’t crash our own cars.
Libertarians, still, dislike negative paternalism (Boaz, 2015), and while begrudgingly accepting some limited restrictions on autonomy, tend to only accept laws to the extent that they prevent one person from harming another person – laws preventing you from harming yourself would be off limits for most libertarian thinkers.
2. Positive Paternalism
By contrast, positive paternalism is introducing something into someone’s against their will life for their own good.
As Sneddon (2013) defines it, positive paternalism “introduces something into one’s life for one’s own good, but without one’s consent and perhaps despite one’s wishes to the contrary.”
A classic example is fluoride in city drinking water (Sneddon, 2013). This is introduced for the health of the population, against their will, but for their own good.
This more interventionist model is seen in just about every society – we pass laws requiring others to vaccinate, go to school, and so forth. All these acts are established for the good of individuals, and they have no choice but to go along.
Social democrats would defend this position – if the majority of people in a society agree on an imposition for the good of every individual, then the rest must follow along.
Libertarians, on the other hand, would protest against being forced into participating in a social program that they did not explicitly consent to. Here, we have a paternalistic “big brother” intervening because it doesn’t think the individual can be trusted to actively do something, such as getting vaccinated.
Boaz, D. (2015). The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom. Simon & Schuster.
Lynch, R. (2015) Paternalistic care? IN Schramme, T. (Ed.). New Perspectives on Paternalism and Health Care. Springer International Publishing.
Nys, T. (2007). A bridge over troubled water: paternalism as the expression of autonomy. In Nys, T., Vandevelde, T., & Denier, Y. (Eds.). Autonomy & Paternalism: Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Health Care. Peeters.
Quong, J. (2011). Liberalism Without Perfection. OUP Oxford.
Sneddon, A. (2013). Autonomy. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]