Paternalism Definition Essay

978 words | 4 page(s)

Paternalism is the act of “interfering with a person’s freedom for his or her own good” (Santa Clara University, 2012, pp. 2). The act of paternalism is associated with an ethical divide. From one standpoint, interfering with another individual’s life may be necessary in order to help them. In contrast, it can be argued that individuals have an inherit right to freedom. An exploration of ethical issues will be provided in determining if paternalism can ever be ethically justified.

Paternalism directly clashes with the ethical principle autonomy. Autonomy gives individuals the freedom to choose and maintain their privacy. In some cultures, it is not uncommon for parent’s to make choices for their adolescent children. This is exemplified in cultures that engage in pre-arranged marriages for their children. From this standpoint, it could be argued that the child, even as they turn into an adult, does not have the ability to choose whom they will marry. However, it could be argued that these individuals engaging in these acts of paternalism are committing these actions in order to ensure their child’s future happiness. Whether these actions are ethically correct is heavily dependent on the culture. In Western culture, these actions would be deemed wrong, as it limits the individual’s decision-making power. In contrast Eastern cultures tend to see these practices as ethically appropriate, as they allow the father, who is viewed as the head of the household, to make decisions for his family.

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Similar to pre-arranged marriages, there are other forms of personal paternalism that commonly occur on a daily basis in society. Personal paternalism involves another individual who is vested in the situation to make a decision for another based on their wellbeing. Personal paternalism is an issue that doctors and hospitals face regularly. In some cases, individuals may refuse treatment, even though it is in the best interest of their health. As a result, the doctor must determine if the individual should receive treatment, despite their unwillingness. The overall ethicality of this situation is heavily based on other circumstances that are occurring. For example, an individual who is suffering from a mental illness and is having a psychotic episode may attempt to refuse treatment. However, in this situation it is in the best interest of all parties involved to treat the individual, regardless of his or her refusal. This is heavily based on the individual’s limited decision-making capacity. Due to the individual’s inability to make a sound, conscious decision for themselves, and fully understand the consequences of their actions, the individual’s autonomy is then limited. In this situation, personal paternalism is ethically justified.

In other situations, paternalism is not easily justified. For example, an individual that has terminal cancer does not want to continue receiving treatment, even though it may extend her life for another few weeks. In this situation, the act of paternalism will not solve the problem, as the woman will inevitably die of cancer shortly. Furthermore, the inability to drastically alter the woman’s life longevity if she receives treatment directly leaves the ethicality of a doctor or guardian forcing the woman to receive treatment in question. Although it can be argued that the woman would benefit from receiving treatment and she would live longer, one must question if the ends justify the means.

Other types of personal paternalism may stray from ethical principles. In these situations, the individual is often coerced into doing something that would benefit others. For example, a lonely old man with an alcohol problem signs over his entire estate to his caregiver after she gives him large sums of alcohol. In situations like this, paternalism is not ethically or legally justified. Furthermore, since the individual was not in the right state of mind, it is likely that his decision would be dismissed in court. However, this example illustrates how paternalism can be used to force individuals to do things that are not in their best interests.

Another type of paternalism is state paternalism. State paternalism is evident throughout the world, as governments require citizens to follow the laws (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). Whether or not laws that benefit society are ethically justified is heavily based on which philosopher the individual believes is correct. For example, Jeremy Bentham believed in utilitarianism, which focuses on brining “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009, pp. 2). However, individuals that stray from a collectivism approach may believe that state paternalism is not in the best good of the individual, as it places a higher emphasis on society rather than the individual. From this standpoint, even though some laws may be in the best interest of society, they are not in the best interest of this individual. For example, many schools now require student’s to show proof of vaccination in order to admit the student. Although this is beneficial from a public health perspective, individuals that have certain religious beliefs may not believe that vaccinating their children is within their religious beliefs. From this standpoint, state paternalism may not be justified on an individual basis.

Paternalism occurs when someone acts on another individual’s behalf. In many situations paternalism is personal. This means that the individual knows the individual directly. Often, the individual is trying to help the individual in need. However, personal paternalism and the ethicality of these actions are heavily based on cultural perceptions. This is further evident in state paternalism. As a whole, the justification of paternalism is heavily based on the presenting circumstances and the individual’s beliefs. Despite these beliefs, there are occurrences when paternalism can be ethically justified.

  • Paternalism (2010) Retrieved from:
  • Paternalism and Freedom of Choice (2012) Retrieved from:
  • The History of Utilitarianism (2009) Retrieved from:

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