Utilitarianism and Paternalism

The likelihood of paternalism justification for a utilitarian dramatically depends on the type of paternalism. According to the definition of utilitarianism provided by Britannica (Duignan & West, 2021), it implies assessing actions based on their results for the person taking the actions and others affected by these actions. If the actions promote happiness or pleasure for the mentioned actors, then these actions are considered proper. It is not difficult to come up with a situation in which weak paternalism can benefit both the subject of paternalism and the rest of the society, even if it implies restricting the subject’s autonomy.

For instance, a dangerously psychotic person can accidentally harm both themselves and others; therefore, partially limiting their freedoms can bring more benefits in the end than it creates harm. Childress (2020) demonstrates a different example – “an incompetent patient—that is, one who lacks the mental capacity to provide informed consent or refusal—may still oppose a particular treatment the clinician believes is necessary.” Childress argues that there is no conflict between principles in this case, as “the patient lacks substantial autonomy” (2020).

It is more difficult for a utilitarian to justify strong paternalism, yet there are several situations where it would be adequate. One possible cause is the state paternalism regarding traffic rules, drugs, healthcare, research, etc. For instance, it can be said that most of the drivers on the roads are rational and autonomous people, yet their freedom can be severely limited depending on the situation. They may be required to wear seat belts when they do not want or see it necessary. The negative outcome is the violation of these people’s autonomy; however, on the positive side, this reduces the potential likelihood of human deaths by some measure.

Regarding the healthcare case, according to Childress (2020), there are several conditions, which, if implied, can justify the acts of strong paternalism in healthcare. Those include significant and preventable harm to the patient that requires strong paternalism to prevent it. There should be a high likelihood of prevention, and the intervention’s benefits should outweigh its risks. Finally, the paternalistic action should limit the subject’s autonomy as little as possible. In that case, it can be said that paternalistic actions are justified both from utilitarian and ethical points of view.

Overall, there are some noticeable patterns in the justification of paternalism. Weak paternalism is relatively easy to justify from the utilitarian point of view. However, when it comes to strong paternalism, utilitarianism allows it only when specific conditions are applied to the subject of paternalistic acts. It can be argued that the conditions used in healthcare to justify strong paternalism can be applied universally for justification.


Childress, J.F. (2020). Public bioethics: Principles and problems. Oxford University Press.

Duignan, B., & West, H.R. (2021). Utilitarianism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.

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