Paternalism

Justification of central or professional power.

There will in any state be those who have a better insight into the needs of society than do ordinary people, and this insight should be employed to shape and implement government policy for the mass of the population.

Source:
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Types

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. We can’t tell the person the bridge is damaged as he doesn’t speak our language. According to soft paternalism, we would be justified in forcing him to not cross the bridge so we could find out whether he knows about the damage. If he knows and wants to jump off the bridge and commit suicide then we should allow him to. Hard paternalists say that at least sometimes we are entitled to prevent him from crossing the bridge and committing suicide.[3][clarification needed]Soft and hard

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.[3]

Moral and welfare

Moral paternalism is where paternalism is justified to promote the moral well being of a person(s) even if their welfare wouldn’t 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.[3]

Criteria for effective paternalism

Thomas Pogge argues that there are a number of criteria for paternalism.[6]

  • The concept should work within human flourishing. Generally accepted items such as nutrition, clothing, shelter, certain basic freedoms may be acceptable by a range of religious and social backgrounds.
  • The criteria should be minimally intrusive.
  • The requirements of the criteria should not be understood as exhaustive; leaving societies the ability to modify the criteria based on their own needs.
  • The supplementary considerations introduced by such more ambitious criteria of justice must not be allowed to outweigh the modest considerations.[further explanation needed]

Opponents

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.[4]:14

Contemporary opponents of paternalism often appeal to the ideal of personal autonomy.

In society

  • In the Southern United States before the Civil War, paternalism was a concept used to justify the legitimacy of slavery. Women would present themselves as mothers for the slaves, or protectors that provided benefits the slaves would not get on their own. Plantation mistresses would attempt to civilize their workers by providing food, shelter, and affection. These women would justify that the conditions for freed blacks were poorer than those who were under the mistresses’ protection. Paternalism was used as an argument against the emancipation of slavery due to these mistresses providing better living conditions than the enslaved’s counterpart in the factory-based north.[7] As a result of this conclusion, the whites would often manage basic rights of the enslaved such as child rearing and property.[8]
  • Paternalism was also used against women’s suffrage, with opponents of women’s suffrage saying that granting women the right to vote would make their lives harder and separate them from their families.

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