What Is Paternalism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Paternalism is an approach to the welfare of citizens, employees, or members of the public where one party makes decisions on their behalf without giving them input into these decisions. The root of this word comes from the Latin for “father” and reflects the idea that paternalism is very similar to hierarchical family structures where the father acts as the head of the family and makes all the decisions. Promoters of this approach argue that it allows an authority to make decisions for the common good, while opponents believe it deprives people of autonomy.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Examples of paternalism can be seen in national governments, workplaces, and other settings. Paternalistic systems are characterized by a situation where people have no responsibilities or rights under the system, and cannot make decisions independently for themselves. For example, an employer could automatically enroll all personnel in a benefits program without providing options or asking employees how they would like to handle their benefits. Likewise, a government might mandate vaccination for all citizens on the grounds that everyone is better off in a society with a high vaccination rate.

Some opponents of paternalism believe it is never appropriate and should be abolished in all forms. Others argue it may have a place in some settings, as long as careful consideration goes into the formulation of policies. Setting laws, for example, is a form of paternalism, but most citizens agree with it as it provides a clear common benefit. Concerns may arise when paternalism appears to interfere with private activities, and legislation impinges on the ability to make personal choices that do not have an impact on others.

Institutions like colleges and workplaces often use a paternalistic approach to manage students and employees. This can create an unequal power dynamic where the subjects of paternalism do not feel as valued and may resist measures implemented by the authorities. Students at a university, for instance, may oppose restrictions on their free speech, or employees may have less job loyalty when they feel their input is not desired.

Some protests to laws seen as overly restrictive have focused on their paternalism, particularly in nations where personal freedoms are highly valued. In the United States, for example, some riders of motorcycles and bicycles resist mandatory helmet laws on the grounds that the choice to wear a helmet is a personal one. The government argues that such laws save lives by ensuring that people involved in accidents have adequate head protection, and thus it is justified in passing and enforcing these laws.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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