Children’s Capacities and Paternalism

Journal of Ethics (2020) DOI: 10.1007/s10892-020-09327-1

Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper Forthcoming

25 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2020

Date Written: March 20, 2020


Paternalism is widely viewed as presumptively justifiable for children but morally problematic for adults. The standard explanation for this distinction is that children lack capacities relevant to the justifiability of paternalism. I argue that this explanation is more difficult to defend than typically assumed. If paternalism is often justified when needed to keep children safe from the negative consequences of their poor choices, then when adults make choices leading to the same negative consequences, what makes paternalism less justified? It seems true that ordinary adults have capacities enabling them to promote their interests in ways most children lack. This can explain why paternalism is more often justified towards children than adults. What is not explained, however, is why paternalism would be justifiable for children, but not adults, when neither possess the relevant interest-promoting capacities—exactly the cases when paternalism towards adults might be considered. I argue that this dilemma undercuts capacities-based explanations for the belief that childhood is distinctively relevant for the permissibility of paternalism. I then address defenses of both consequentialist and deontological versions of the capacities-based explanation. Absent this capacities-based explanation, I argue that the intuition that less demanding justificatory standards apply to paternalism when directed at children than when directed towards adults presents unresolved problems for egalitarians.

Keywords: Paternalism, Children, Capacities, Liberalism, Egalitarianism

JEL Classification: K38, K36, D63

Suggested Citation

Godwin, Samantha, Children’s Capacities and Paternalism (March 20, 2020). Journal of Ethics (2020) DOI: 10.1007/s10892-020-09327-1, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Samantha Godwin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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