Key Ethics Term: Paternalism

“Paternalism is the interference of a state or an individual with another person, against their will, and defended or motivated by a claim that the person interfered with will be better off or protected from harm. The issue of paternalism arises with respect to restrictions by the law such as anti-drug legislation, the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, and in medical contexts by the withholding of relevant information concerning a patient’s condition by physicians.” (

There is disagreement over classification of paternalism in practice and the ethical justification for it in any given case. One of the classic cases of paternalism that occurred at the birth of bioethics as it is known today is the case of Dax Cowart (see BH website: Dax was a patient with severe burns over 65% of his body who was assessed as having decision making capacity and refused care, but care was provided over his objections for the purpose of benefiting Dax (by saving life and restoring significant quality in his life).