AskDefine | Define paternalism

Dictionary Definition

paternalism n : the attitude (of a person or a government) that subordinates should be controlled in a fatherly way for their own good

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the treatment of people in a fatherly manner, especially by caring for them but not allowing them to have rights or responsibilities

Extensive Definition

Paternalism refers usually to an attitude or a policy stemming from the hierarchic pattern of a family based on patriarchy, that is, there is a figurehead (the father, pater in Latin) that makes decisions on behalf of others (the "children") for their own good, even if this is contrary to their wishes.
It is implied that the fatherly figure is wiser than and acts in the best interest of its protected figures. The term may be used derogatorily to characterize attitudes or political systems that are thought to deprive individuals of freedom and responsibility, only nominally serving their interests, while in fact pursuing another agenda.

Meanings and interpretations

The term paternalism has two important meanings: the first is the assumption that the more powerful and the better-off in any society have obligations towards the less powerful and the poor, and the second is the set of informal expectations and codes of manners held by men about how to behave towards women. What unites these two assumptions is the idea that it is the responsibility of the more powerful to demonstrate concern for the less powerful, but without disturbing existing power relations or taking steps to ensure that those in weaker social positions are enabled to improve their situation. Paternalism is frequently associated with nineteenth- and twentieth-century attitudes towards the poor: paternalistic strategies advocated acts of individual charity to alleviate poverty while rejecting more radical attempts to provide social assistance that did not depend on acts of individual goodwill. In the latter part of the twentieth century, western feminism has identified paternalism as a masculine pattern of conduct that maintains male power and is essentially random and individualistic. At the same time, other critiques of paternalism have identified it as a set of expectations that are always organized around the presumption of the authority of the powerful (whatever the source of power) over the less powerful.

Philosophical background

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 subjects 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 did not establish a democracy in Lacedaemon (Sparta), 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 governmentref plutarch.
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" . Aristotle further claimed that "the government of a household is a monarchy since every house is governed by a single ruler". 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.
Arius Didymus in Stobaeus, 1st century CE, 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"ref didymus.
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 (the man is head of the 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" .
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 .
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"ref vonKuehnelt.
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 patriarchal family based upon absolute morality; for left-wing persons, 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 ref lakoff.

Opponents of paternalism

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 claim that an overarching moral system overrides personal freedom in some circumstances, 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, as opposed to the social contract explications from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls.
Libertarians are seen as generally being opponents of paternalism. Few political theorists, even Libertarians, 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 wrote that the state should be restricted to "protecting men from each other and from external attack".


  • note plutarchPlutarch: 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.
  • Politics, Aristotle, Loeb Classical Library, Bk I, §II 8-10; 1254a 20-35; pg 19-21
  • Politics, Bk I, §11,21;1255b 15-20; pg 29.
  • Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, ed. By M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, Carsten Colpe, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, l995.
  • note didymus Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, ed. By M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, Carsten Colpe, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, l995.
  • On Divorce, Louis de Bonald, trans. By Nicholas Davidson, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1993. pp 44-46.
  • On Divorce, Louis de Bonald, pp 88-89; 149.
  • note vonKuehnelt Liberty or Equality, Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, pg 155.
  • note lakoff George Lakoff, What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't, ISBN 0-226-46796-1

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.
  • Paternalism and the Black Psyche by York Van Nixon III.
paternalism in Danish: Paternalisme
paternalism in German: Paternalismus
paternalism in Spanish: Paternalismo
paternalism in French: Paternalisme
paternalism in Galician: Paternalismo
paternalism in Dutch: Paternalisme (personeelsbeleid)
paternalism in Japanese: パターナリズム
paternalism in Norwegian: Paternalisme
paternalism in Polish: Paternalizm
paternalism in Russian: Патернализм
paternalism in Serbian: Патернализам
paternalism in Finnish: Paternalismi
paternalism in Swedish: Paternalism
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1