Absolute liberty is absence of restraint; responsibility is restraint; therefore, the ideally free individual is responsible to himself. 

                                                                                                                                                Henry Brooks Adams 

Paternalism. Personal freedom or intervention for your own well-being?

Paternalism (Paternity) is not a new phenomenon. Issues concerning paternalism arise in different fields of social and personal life. In general, it includes two competitive demands: individual freedom and social control. Very often, it raises contradictory perceptions mainly being accepted as a negative phenomenon.  It raises questions about how individuals should treat each other both in institutional and in personal environments. What is compromise, if it exists, between the concern for the well-being of others and  the respect for their right to make their own decisions. One of the main questions which becomes a reason for many debates and discussions is in which borders democratic states can legally interfere in individual’s or group’s freedom.

Definition of Paternalism and its theoretical perceptions.

The term paternalism came into use at the end of the 19th century as a supposed criticism against the inalienable values of personal freedom and autonomy. These have been emphasized in the works of Immanuel Kant(1785) and John Stuart Mill(1859). The etymology of the word roots in the Latin word “pater” (father), which firstly reflects the relationship between the children and the father. More concretely, paternalism concerns the actions and interventions through which parents limit the  freedom of their children, or make decisions instead of them for their well-being. At the same time, paternalism reflects the social rankings of paternity cultures, in which fathers or heads of the families are perceived as authoritative characters, who were responsible for their subordinates or for the well-being of those who depended on them. Likewise, at the state level, governments often pursue policies of changing people’s behavior for their own well-being. But all this isn’t enough to qualify this phenomenon as paternalism.

In his article of 1972, Gerald Dworkin defined paternalism as “an intervention by a state or an individual to the affairs of another person against his/her will by limiting subject’s freedom, which is  protected or manipulated by the assertion that it would be better for the interfered person or he/she would be more protected from damages”. This definition allows us to highlight 3 important components, with the presence of which the action may be qualified as paternalistic. So, it must:  

  • limit the subject’s  freedom,
  • be carried out without subject’s agreement,
  •  be carried out for  the subject’s well-being.

In other words, we show paternalism when we interfere in order to promote or protect the well-being of a person, who doesn’t want such help or protection. Like Kalle Grill said “the normative source of paternalism is conflict between respect for autonomy and freedom, on the one hand and well-being, promotion and protection, on the other hand”. By analyzing Mill’s ideas, Dworkin came into two important principles. The first one is that self-protection or others’ damage prevention are  sufficient justification for restricting a person’s freedom. The second one is that ensuring one’s own well-being is never a sufficient ground for the society or individuals to implement compulsion. In fact, the main idea of the criticism and the contradictory approaches concerning paternalizm lies in the very second statement. As Feinberg mentioned, the majority of societies try to keep a reasonable balance between the extreme paternalism and its absolute rejection. The first one increases infantilism of the adults, the second one invalidates the possibility of coercion as a way to benefit. However, it’s not that easy to find clear examples of paternalistic intervention by the state, as each legislative act is justified for several reasons. Dorkin finds the following interventions paternalistic:

  •  laws requiring motorcyclists to wear safety helmets,
  • laws prohibiting people from swimming in public beaches while guards aren’t on duty,
  • laws considering suicide a criminal offence,
  • laws regulating the usage of some drugs which can have harmful consequences, but do not lead to antisocial behavior,
  • laws requiring license for special jobs and contains penalty, prison and so on. 
Types of Paternalism

In the professional literature, different types of paternalism are distinguished based on the excuses and conditions of freedom and  autonomy limitations: hard and soft, wide and narrow, strong and weak, pure and impure,  as well as moral, welfare and legal.

Hard and Soft. First of all, by worrying about person’s security and welfare, a supporter of  hard paternalism would allow restrictions on suicide or for preventing some serious personal injuries, even if this person realizes his actions and its consequences. On the other hand,  soft paternalism implies that the only condition which justifies paternalism is to know whether the person whose actions are  interfered is acting voluntarily and consciously.  Here we can remember Mill’s well-known example about a person who was trying to cross a damaged bridge. If we couldn’t tell him/her about the danger (he/she speaks only Japanese) the supporter of soft paternalism would force him/her not to cross the bridge to clarify whether he/she is informed about the danger. If the person  knows about the danger and still wants to cross it and let’s suppose that he/she wants to commit a suicide, then soft paternalism implies that he/she should be allowed to do whatever he/she wants. In the case of hard paternalism, it is allowed to prevent him/her from crossing the bridge, even if he/she knows about the danger. In this case one has right to prevent voluntary suicide.

Strong and Weak. Weak paternalism (just like the soft one) implies that it is legal to force a person by interfering with the means that they choose to reach their goals. That is to say, if they really prefer safety to comfort, consequently measures must be taken for their own safety, so it is acceptable to force them to wear seatbelts.

Strong paternalism implies that people can make mistakes, get confused or have irrational goals and it is legitimate to interfere and prevent them from reaching these goals, but not in the case when the person realizes his/her choice and its consequences. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that we can interfere with misconceptions of facts but not of values.

Wide and Narrow. Wide paternalism implies paternalistic action taken by any source including private institutions, family and individuals who restrict and control a person’s actions, while the narrow paternalism only refers to coercion by the state, that is to say,  the use of legitimate coercion.

Pure and Impure. Pure paternalism implies restriction of people’s actions who can be injured from their own behavior, while the impure paternalism implies restrictions of the actions of the third person for protecting potential victims. Let’s suppose that we prevent people from producing cigarettes, because we think that it is harmful for the consumers. The group that we are trying to protect is consumers’ group not the producers (who may not smoke at all). The reason for interfering with the actions of producers is that it is harmful for others. Nevertheless, the main justification is paternalistic, as the consumer agrees with the fact of its harmfulness (assuming that the relevant information is available to him/her). In the conditions of pure paternalism the protected class is also identical to the class, the actions of which are  interfered, for example, not  allowing swimmers to swim while the rescuers are not present.

Moral and Welfare. Moral paternalism is different from welfare paternalism depending on the intended type of good for a person. The means of coercion for promoting moral well-being are also different from others, such as car speed limits, vaccinations for school children (pupils), and a number of other means that are intended for the promotion of people’s general welfare. We can say that moral paternalism refers to the promotion of a person’s moral character, even if in the result his/her material prosperity will not improve.

Legal Paternalism. The use of coercive laws towards people that demand or restrict certain actions for their own interest is known as legal paternalism. Jeremy Bentham has done a semantic classification of laws: laws that are to protect people from the damages done by others, laws that are to protect people from harming themselves and laws which require people to help others. Based on the Mill’s principle of harm, Bentham considered legitimate only laws of the first class.

The Moral Considerations of Paternalism

The central moral issue of paternalism is the legitimate restriction of a person’s freedom and autonomy in an equal society, where all individuals enjoy respect, freedom and autonomy due to their personal qualities. Following Kant and Mill, this moral provision comes out of the reasoning that people best decide by themselves and follow the things that are in their interests. Objections to paternalism are absolutely negative in Kant’s views. Rejecting an adult’s right of making his/her own decisions means to see him/her as just a way or tool for his/her own good, not a goal by himself/ herself. We can say that anti-paternalism is already included in Kant’s views by the moral ban on the main tools of paternalistic interference: lie and force.

Mill, in his turn, distinguishes paternalism towards adults and towards children. In the first case, moral assumption works in favor of paternalism, in the second case it prohibits paternalism. What justifies us when we interfere with children’s actions? The fact that some emotional and cognitive abilities yet miss in them which allow us to make rational decisions. Here the future-oriented agreement is emphasized, which will be welcomed by the child in the future not now.

In some cases, it is rational for the individual to agree that the others will force him/her to do things that he/she wouldn’t like to do at that moment. We can find a classic example of this in Odyssey, when Odysseus orders his man to tie him to the mast and reject all of his future orders to set him free, because he knows the ability of Sirenes’ to enchant with their songs. However,  such cases, where there is a real agreement by the person whose freedom is restricted, aren’t perceived as paternalistic by Dworkin. 

So in the moral context, negative attitude towards paternalism is based on the fact that it denies individuals’ full humanity, ignoring their ability to act for their well-being. So moral arguments defending paternalism must have valid reasons, which will justify the restriction of freedom and autonomy.

Justified Paternalism

Studying discourses of paternalism we come to an important question; In which circumstances is paternalism justified? When analyzing the normative views on paternalism, Dworkin observed 2 possible options:

  1.   It is never allowed to restrict other’s freedom by trying to do something good for them against their will,
  2.   It can be done only in certain cases.

The first option is often based on Kant’s views. The second option can be based on different theoretical grounds. Thus, consequentialists can argue that the good which is done may outweigh the damage caused by autonomy loss. Another argument is that individual autonomy can be protected for a long perspective by limiting the short one, such as Mill’s argument of being against to signing a voluntary bond of slavery.

Moral contractualism can justify paternalism with the claim that in certain cases a conscious person will allow others to interfere with his/her own actions when he/she has appropriate knowledge and motives. In fact this is what Feinberg called “Soft paternalism”.

According to Robert Gudin, when people make factual mistakes in their perceptions, thus their surface l preferences (for example: smoking or gambling despite limited income) damage their deep preferences (to be alive, not to be sick or poor), then reviewing their surface preferences may be justified in favor of their “relevant preferences”. Except for that, people can understand their real interest, but still they can make opposite or contradictory choices out of their “favourite preferences”, which Bill New describes from the point of “weakness of will”. As Gudin says “by helping them to implement their preferences, we only respect their priorities accordingly justifying a state’s intervention.” For example, a person who smokes may want to quit it, but it may be hard for him/her. If the state policy helps people to implement their preferences, then this kind of policy can’t be called paternalistic in a morally unjustified sense.

Paternalism is sometimes justified for preventing harm. Mill’s principle of harm however justifies interference only in the cases when it will harm others, but it prohibits interference for preventing self-harm or conscious harm.

Generalizing perceptions about paternalism, we can say that the main concept of critique paternalism is in the following perceptions

  • An individual is free to do everything he/she wants as long as it does not harm others,
  • Nobody knows better what is best for the other, than the person himself/herself,
  •  Conscious adults must not be treated like children.

In their turn, supporters of paternalism rely on the following perceptions: 

  • People often have irrational perceptions and are able to make wrong decisions which do not correspond to the objective good,
  • Short-term compulsion can promote long-term benefit,
  • Paternalism can be more effective.
Modern Perceptions of Paternalism. Liberal Paternalism.

In the last years a new, influential direction of thought about paternalistic intervention has emerged. It is known as “New paternalism” or “Liberal paternalism”. This perception has been affected by the research done in behavioral science, which refers to a person’s cognitive and sensual abilities that are incomplete or restricted. The first theorists who emphasized these conclusions for social policy development were Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (Nudgers). They were insisting that as people were prone to make bad choices, then they should be directed to their desirable goals. Their choice must be organized in a way that they do everything which will lead to their aims in a more probable way. They described the guidance as “architecture of choice”, that shapes different directions and as a result of which behavior of people changes in a predictable way without preventing any option or without changing their economic stimulus. In contrast to paternalism nudge refers to resources, not to the goals. It just changes the perception about choice in a way that it lets people have more possibility to choose the best  options for themselves.

Here arises a  question why this theory is called “Liberal paternalism” by its authors. At first sight, the theories of liberalism and paternalism seem to be incompatible and even contradictory. However, we can say that nudge is liberal because it keeps freedom of choice. No choices get eliminated and complicated, no one is forced. The line of choice stays the same. In addition, their view is paternalistic, because it seeks to promote the nudged person’s benefit. So liberal paternalism reinterprets and brings these two principal views closer.

In general, liberal paternalism can be defined as a bunch of interventions that aims to overcome an  individual’s unavoidable cognitive biases and throwbacks of decision making by using them to influence his/her decisions directing him/her to choices that the individual  would make in the ideal conditions by himself/herself. Let’s see a few popular examples of nudges:

  • In order to have influence on students’ consciousness, so that they choose healthier food when visiting the cafeteria , the healthy food is listed at the eye level in the menu, while the unhealthy food is above or below the eye level,
  • Taking into account that a lot of workers often do not enroll(refuse to participate) in retirement projects, the employers make default registration letting the employees opt-out easily,
  • The usage of small plates in the cafés reduces the amount of  consumed food.

With all this, nudge raises a number of problematic issues. One of these issues is that what  the nudged person  knows about nudging, whether it is  transparent and  the individual is aware of it and its motives. The next objection is connected with some mechanisms, through which the purpose of nudge is realized.  Let’s consider the example of the café. The reason of putting healthy food at the eye level is the tendency to choose things that are at the eye level. As the placement of food is not a rational basis for choice, the nudgers use this not rational method for healthy food to be chosen. In this case we have both lack of transparency and usage of not rational tendencies. Some people argue that using our irrational tendencies even for good purpose, is not preferable (desirable). 

As nudges are to exclude force and usually are not cases of deception (in opposite to the absence of transparency),  the manipulation idea is used for criticizing nudging. However there is one more problem; manipulation itself is an amorphous and unspecified concept. There are widespread disagreements about what kind of effects are manipulative, and in which conditions (situations)  they are wrong.


So, the main essence of paternalism is in the idea of promoting a person’s welfare in terms of personal freedom and autonomy. Because of it, this phenomenon is often qualified as negative, especially for moral reasons. The main issue which is discussed up to now, is in which conditions it is possible to justify paternalism, the tools of which often include deception and coercion. Currently, liberal paternalism is becoming more and more widespread which in essence claims two different and conflicting views uniting their basic principles.  It gives a freedom of choice and acts in favor of a person’s welfare. However, this view also has its  vulnerabilities. 


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  2. Dworkin, G. “Paternalism” , The Monist, Vol. 56, No. 1, Philosophy and Public Policy, 1972, pp. 64-84
  3. Dworkin, G. “Paternalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 
  4. Grill, K.. “Normative and Non-normative Concepts: Paternalism and Libertarian Paternalism”, 2013,-
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  6. Lindsay J. Thompson, “Paternalism”, Encyclopedia of Governance, 2007,
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  8. Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein, “Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron” (University of Chicago Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper No. 43, 2003),
  9. Thomas C. Leonard, Robert S. Goldfarb & Steven M. Suranovic, “New on Paternalism and Public Policy”, Economics and Philosophy, 16 (2000) 323 ” 331, Cambridge University Press,-
  10. Thomas, M. and Buckmaster, L. “Paternalism in social policy when is it justifiable?”, 2010

Author: Tatev Ghazaryan © All rights reserved. 

Translator: Lianna Sargsyan