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Paternalism is from the Latin pater "father", from the adjective paternus "fatherly", and in general denotes an attitude, a policy, or action limiting the liberty or autonomy of a person or group, which is at least ostensibly intended to promote their own good, and can also imply that the behavior is against or regardless of the will of a person, or also that the behavior expresses an attitude of superiority, justified or unjustified.

Some philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill, think an attitude of paternalism is only appropriate toward children:

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood.[1]

An attitude or policy of paternalism towards adults is sometimes thought to treat them disrespectfully, even demeaning them, as if they were children. Sociologists are divided on whether certain degrees of paternalism defend or violate human dignity.

In On Liberty John Stuart Mill writes:

...the 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.[2]

In the late 19th century and most of the 20th century in the United States, conservative political theory was held to regard the general population as needing guidance, and a more centralized government, emphasizing Federalism, at the time exemplified by the leaders of the Republican Party, in contrast to a more liberal political theory holding that the people as a whole, innately possessed in general enough mature, informed common sense, to determine for themselves what is best to fulfill the needs of the country as a whole, and of regions and states and cities, and of minorities and individual citizens in particular, in favor of a more decentralized government, emphasizing States Rights and grassroots movements, at the time exemplified by the leaders of the Democratic Party and the Libertarian Party. Much has changed since the late 20th century, beginning in the 70s and 80s, and through into the 21st century.

Paternalism, paternalistic and paternalist have all been used as negative, disapproving labels. See Libel and Polemic.

See also


Big Brother

Social gospel









  1. Mill, J.S. [1859]/(1991) "On Liberty", published in Gray, John (ed), John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  2. ibid.

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