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International paternalism and humanitarian governance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2012

Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, 1957 E St. NW, Washington, DC 20052


This article argues that paternalism is an organizing principle of the international humanitarian order. The international community is increasingly organized to preserve, protect, and promote human life, reflecting an ethics of care and impulse to intervene for the greater good. This mixture of care and control is captured by the concept of paternalism, which Gerald Dworkin famously defined as ‘the interference with a person’s liberty of action justified by reasons referring exclusively to the welfare, good, happiness, needs, interests or values of the person being coerced’. Paternalism is either present or dormant in many (if not nearly all) interventions that are designed for the betterment of people and the good of humanity. This article has four goals: 1) to reassess and examine the analytical power of this much maligned and misunderstood concept; 2) to consider the dimensions upon which paternalism varies in order to develop the concept’s value for empirical analysis; 3) to speculate how and why paternalism’s form has moved from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’ over the last hundred years; and, 4) to consider whether, why, and when paternalism might be legitimate.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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