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Paternalism- A Deep Dive

A slippery slope or a slippery cliff?

By Brian Published 2 months ago 4 min read

With all the legal plight happening in our political sphere, I am suffering from "Litigation Lethargy". In all seriousness, I wanted to get to the nitty gritty about a certain idea that is behind all of this.

By Brian Salkowski

Commentary #274

Paternalism is a complex and multifaceted concept that has been debated in various fields such as ethics, political philosophy, and law. At its core, paternalism refers to actions or policies that limit a person’s or group’s liberty or autonomy, with the intention of promoting their own good. This concept raises important questions about the balance between individual freedom and societal responsibility, as well as the legitimacy of authority figures in making decisions on behalf of others.

The term “paternalism” comes from the Latin word “pater,” meaning “father,” suggesting a relationship similar to that of a parent to a child, where the parent makes decisions for the child’s benefit. In a broader sense, paternalism can be seen as an attitude or policy that involves managing or governing individuals, businesses, or nations in a way that is outwardly benevolent but can be perceived as condescending or controlling.

Paternalism can be categorized in several ways:

Soft vs. Hard Paternalism: Soft paternalism justifies intervention only if the action to be committed is involuntary or based on insufficient understanding, while hard paternalism supports intervention even if the individual’s actions are informed and voluntary. With "hard" paternalism, it justifies interventions even when the individual’s actions are fully voluntary and informed. It allows for the restriction of a person’s liberty for their own good, based on the judgment that the authority knows better what is in the person’s best interest. Hard paternalism can be seen as more intrusive because it can override the choices of competent adults. On the other hand, "soft" paternalism only justifies interventions when the actions of the individual are nonvoluntary or based on insufficient understanding. It aims to protect individuals from self-harm that results from decisions made under coercion, ignorance, or incapacity. Soft paternalism is considered less intrusive because it respects the autonomy of individuals who are fully informed and acting voluntarily.

In essence, soft paternalism aligns with the protection of individuals who cannot make fully autonomous decisions, while hard paternalism extends this protection even to those who can make such decisions but might be deemed to make the wrong ones according to the paternalistic authority

Pure vs. Impure Paternalism: Pure paternalism involves interventions that only affect the individuals being protected, whereas impure paternalism affects a broader group.

Moral vs. Welfare Paternalism: Moral paternalism is concerned with promoting the moral well-being of individuals, even if their welfare does not improve, while welfare paternalism focuses on improving an individual’s well-being, regardless of moral considerations.

This idea is not new. It has been debated while utilized across many fields. The ethical implications alone could give reason for pause. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that paternalism is justifiable towards children but not towards adults in full possession of their faculties. He emphasized the importance of personal liberty and autonomy, suggesting that individuals should be free to make their own choices unless they cause harm to others. Paternalism manifests in various aspects of public and private life, including laws requiring seatbelt use, restrictions on drug consumption, and medical decisions made by doctors for their patients. These instances raise debates about the extent to which authorities should interfere in individuals’ lives for their own good.

Critics of paternalism argue that it undermines individual freedom and dignity, treating adults as if they were children incapable of making their own decisions. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that paternalistic policies are necessary to protect individuals from harm, especially in cases where they may not be fully capable of making informed decisions.

Its "Democracy" Related

Paternalism and democracy can have a complex relationship, as they touch upon the balance between individual freedom and the collective good. In a democratic society, the principle of autonomy is paramount, with the idea that citizens should have the freedom to make their own choices and govern themselves. However, paternalism introduces a contrasting element where authorities may intervene in the lives of individuals for their perceived benefit, even if it goes against their immediate preferences. Deliberative democracy emphasizes the importance of autonomous preference formation and informed decision-making by citizens. It suggests that for a democracy to function effectively, citizens should be able to participate in open and rational deliberation, free from manipulation or coercion. Paternalism, when it interferes with this process, can be seen as antithetical to the ideals of deliberative democracy.

Some argue that a certain degree of paternalism can be compatible with democracy if it aims to protect individuals from harm and promote long-term interests that align with democratic values. This perspective suggests that paternalistic measures, such as public health initiatives or safety regulations, can enhance the overall well-being of citizens, thus supporting the democratic goal of a flourishing society. However, there is a risk that paternalism can slide towards authoritarianism if it diminishes the distinction between the state and the government or leader, reducing the agency of individuals and potentially undermining the democratic process. When paternalism is used to justify overriding individual preferences for the sake of a perceived greater good, it can conflict with the democratic principle of respecting the will of the people.

The relationship between paternalism and democracy is nuanced and requires careful consideration of the implications of any paternalistic action on individual freedoms and democratic participation. While some paternalistic policies may be justified in a democratic context, it is crucial to ensure that they do not erode the foundational values of autonomy and self-governance that democracy upholds.

I conclude that the debate over paternalism is ongoing and reflects deeper philosophical questions about the role of the state, the limits of individual freedom, and the nature of human well-being. As societies continue to evolve, the discussion around paternalism remains relevant, challenging us to consider how best to balance individual rights with the collective good.


About the Creator


I am a writer. I love fiction but also I'm a watcher of the world. I like to put things in perspective not only for myself but for other people. It's the best outlet to express myself. I am a advocate for Hip Hop & Free Speech! #Philly

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