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Image of traditional cultural paternalism: Father Junipero Serra in a modern portrayal at Mission San Juan Capistrano, California

Paternalism refers to an attitude or a policy reminiscent of the hierarchic pattern of a family based on patriarchy, that is, there is a figurehead.(literally meaning 'father like')., pater in Latin) that makes decisions on behalf of others (the "wife" and "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 which is directly against the interests of the individuals.


Meanings and interpretations

Paternalism has two principal definitions: (i) the presumption that the powerful and the rich of a society are socially obligated towards the powerless and the poor; (ii) men’s informal social expectations and codes of manners and honour determining how to treat women. The definitions are consolidated in the notion of the social responsibility of the powerful to demonstrate concern for the powerless — but without disturbing the existing power relations, nor taking social reform steps that would allow the socially inferior (the powerless) to improve their places in society.

Paternalism often is associated with nineteenth- and twentieth-century attitudes towards the poor: individual charity to palliate poverty, whilst rejecting any radical social changes that would alleviate and eliminate poverty. In the latter part of the twentieth century, Western feminism has philosophically identified paternalism as a masculine pattern of conduct for maintaining male power, and that it is essentially random and individualistic, not formal. Like-wise, other critiques of paternalism have identified it as expectations organized to support 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 government[1].

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" [2]. Aristotle further claimed that "the government of a household is a monarchy since every house is governed by a single ruler"[3]. 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[4].

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"[5].

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" [6].

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 [7].

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"[8].

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 [9].


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 his or her 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.[citation needed] Even the state's protection of individual property rights might be interpreted as "paternalistic."[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Robert Nozick, who is generally seen as a founding father of modern libertarianism, admits no exception : the State is acting paternalistically each time it presupposes to know better than people what is in their best interest. This leads Nozick to justify the moral permissibility of (self-imposed) slavery. John Stuart Mill said that offensive behaviour that could take place in private should not be banned as no one but the individual knows what is best for them than themselves. He also explains that paternalism can be a cover for moral prejudice and social prejudices against the lower classes. Mill admits two notable exceptions: parents should be forced to send their children to school and voluntary slavery should not be allowed as it using freedom against itself. Schopenhauer wrote that the state should be restricted to "protecting men from each other and from external attack".

Among claims that "bridges" exist between the libertarian and paternalist school, classical liberal economists have recently spoken out to refute such claims. They argue it is simply an attempt by the political status quo to sidestep the challenges presented by libertarian thought.[1]

See also


  1. ^ Klein, Daniel B. "Status Quo Bias" (August 2004)
  • ^ Plutarch: 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, 1995.
  • ^ Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, ed. By M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, Carsten Colpe, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1995.
  • ^ 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.
  • ^ Liberty or Equality, Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, pg 155.
  • ^ George Lakoff, What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't, ISBN 0-226-46796-1

1. * ^ Klein, Daniel B. "Status Quo Bias" (August 2004). [10]

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