Relational Autonomy, Paternalism, and Maternalism


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.

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  1. 1.

    There are two main forms of paternalism, state paternalism and interpersonal paternalism. There has been much work recently relating to both kinds. In this paper, we focus on interpersonal interferences, leaving open the question of whether our arguments in later sections extend into state interference or not.

  2. 2.

    In recent work, John Christman has begun the task of bringing together theories of paternalism with theories of relational autonomy. Although we share in the general thrust of Christman’s work, our analysis differs in its aim. Whereas Christman has used relational autonomy to question standards of antipaternalism, our goal is to harness these same relational resources to describe a non-paternalistic intervention.

  3. 3.

    This is also a separate project from Sara Ruddick’s “Maternal Thinking” (1980; 1989), which describes the discipline or thought processes of mothers. The projects are similar in that both are interested in a kind of caring labor, but dissimilar in that Ruddick describes maternal thinking as the particular practice of mothering, while we identify maternalism as a general ethical concept.

  4. 4.

    Paternalistic interventions need not be so simple, and recent work has described a rich variety of possible paternalisms (Begon 2016). These paternalisms step away from this classic version in many ways, as we discuss further in Section 5.

  5. 5.

    Some have argued that the wrongness of paternalism is found not in autonomy-violation, but in the uniquely insulting paternalist motive (Shiffrin 2000; Quong 2011). Such views identify paternalist acts as those motivated by a negative judgment about the person’s ability to make decisions that promote her interests (Quong 2011: 80). This view has held some sway, but recently has been criticized on a number of grounds – many of which seek to show that it is not, in fact, distinct from the autonomy-based view of the wrongness of paternalism. For example, Chris Mills (2013) has objected that Quong’s argument is successful only when it relies on the strength of its rival view, the argument from personal autonomy. Peter De Marneffe (2006) has called into question whether the paternalist motive is unique, or need be insulting, in the ways specified by the motivational view; this is especially the case, he argues, in light of empirical findings questioning our abilities to choose in line with our welfare and interests. Also, David Enoch has argued that the wrong of paternalism lies not in having a negative judgment or belief, but in the decision to act on this judgment: we have exclusionary reasons, based on personal autonomy, not to act on such judgments (2016: 26–30). Here, we accept a broad autonomy-based view without committing ourselves to any particular account.

  6. 6.

    We can distinguish between autonomous choices, autonomous actions, and autonomous agency (Holroyd 2009). An autonomous choice is a mental act (dependent on an agent’s mental capacities and content, such as beliefs), while an autonomous action is the execution of a choice (dependent on an agent’s governance of her body and the physical possibility of carrying out specific actions). Autonomous agency, by contrast, refers to the agent’s capacities, as developed and exercised over the course of his or her life – also referred to as autonomy competencies (Meyers 1989). Such agential competencies are a precondition for autonomous choices and acts. Our concern here is with autonomous agency, unless otherwise specified.

  7. 7.

    Relational autonomy is not alone in this observation, and in this sense it is closely tied to the ethics of care. Building on the work of Carol Gilligan, Marian Verkerk has described how using care ethics as a lens on ethical theory leads to a critique of traditional conceptions of autonomy as premised on an ideal of independence. In the place of the free and independent autonomous self, a care ethical lens focuses less on self-sufficiency, the wrong of interference, and individual rights and more on reciprocity, the wrong of abandonment, and relational responsibility (Gilligan 1986; Verkerk 2001: 291). Thus, while our comments here are primarily offered using the language of relational autonomy, they should be understood as of a piece within the broader approach of an ethics of care (Little 1998).

  8. 8.

    The other is Holroyd 2009.

  9. 9.

    Marian Verkerk also describes a form of intervention which she terms “compassionate interference,” in which medical professionals (she cites psychiatric professionals in particular) form caring relationships with their patients to help them to regain their self-respect and self-esteem after oppressive and damaging social experiences (Verkerk 2001: 293). This means, in some cases, proactively inquiring about the patients’ activities and feelings and directing the patient to act in certain ways based on this knowledge. Likewise, Laura Specker Sullivan has proposed that Japanese professionals’ nondisclosures of cancer diagnoses directly to certain patients are mischaracterized as paternalistic, a conceptual designation that misrepresents the purposes, methods, and relationships that form the context for these interventions (Specker Specker Sullivan 2016).

  10. 10.

    These comparisons focus on classic paternalism, which is defined as an intervention that violates an individual’s autonomy or fails to take it into account in some important way. As we discuss in section 5, some new versions of paternalism will be more similar to maternalism across some of these comparisons, and these comparisons are not meant to draw stark borderlines between the two conceptual frameworks. However, as we argue in section 5, there is a conceptual difference between paternalism and maternalism’s approaches to autonomy, one which John Christman describes as the difference between respecting autonomy (through non-interference) and valuing autonomy (through supportive interaction) (Christman 2014: 373; also see Mackenzie 2008).

  11. 11.

    While a full analysis of Talbert’s four contextual features warrants a paper in its own right (e.g., what is it to know another person without bias, or without deception?), we agree with her general description of what it means to know another person.

  12. 12.

    This is not necessarily the case for all forms of paternalism. Soft paternalistic interventions, for example, are aimed at confirming the voluntariness or rationality of the individual’s will. We discuss this point in more detail in section 5.

  13. 13.

    Kim Atkins has further described how intimate others can gain access to the subjective character of an individual’s experience (Atkins 2000).

  14. 14.

    This does not mean that M should be willing to make a decision for SM just because it is something that SM wills or wants. Rather, the decision must be in line with SM’s will and in her best interests, on M’s understanding of these. (An interesting question arises in cases where SM’s will and her best interests come apart. Should M refrain from acting in order not to paternalize? While this is not an issue we can resolve here, we propose it is just one of the interesting questions raised by maternalism.)

  15. 15.

    This is clearly seen within the institutional context, where it is questionable whether P – a choice architect (on Sunstein’s account of noncoercive means paternalism) or another state actor (on Conly’s coercive version) – can know SP’s relevant pro-attitudes beyond probabilistic judgments based on, e.g., demographics. This means that means paternalism will often collapse into ends paternalism, absent any further empirical grounding for its claim about supporting SP’s own ends (Rebonato 2012: 195–196; Mills 2017).


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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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Correspondence to Laura Specker Sullivan.

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Specker Sullivan, L., Niker, F. Relational Autonomy, Paternalism, and Maternalism. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 649–667 (2018).

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  • Autonomy
  • Relational autonomy
  • Paternalism
  • Maternalism
  • Care ethics