Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 649–667 | Cite as

Relational Autonomy, Paternalism, and Maternalism

  • Laura Specker SullivanEmail author
  • Fay Niker


The concept of paternalism is intricately tied to the concept of autonomy. It is commonly assumed that when paternalistic interventions are wrong, they are wrong because they impede individuals’ autonomy. Our aim in this paper is to show that the recent shift towards conceiving of autonomy relationally highlights a separate conceptual space for a nonpaternalistic kind of interpersonal intervention termed maternalism. We argue that maternalism makes a twofold contribution to the debate over the ethics of interpersonal action and decision-making. Descriptively, it captures common experiences that, while not unusual in everyday life, are largely absent from the present discussion. Normatively, it describes a type of intervention with justification conditions distinct from the standard framework of paternalism. We explicate these contributions by describing six key differences between maternalism and paternalism, and conclude by anticipating and responding to potential objections.


Autonomy Relational autonomy Paternalism Maternalism Care ethics 



We would like to thank Kimberley Brownlee, Lily Lamboy, and Adam Swift, as well as audiences at Stanford’s Political Theory workshop and at the College of Charleston’s Department of Philosophy, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for BioethicsHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.McCoy Family Center for Ethics in SocietyStanford Law SchoolStanfordUSA

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