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International paternalism and humanitarian governance


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.

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1 Fassin D, ‘Humanitarianism: a Nongovernmental Government’ in Feher M (ed), Nongovernmental Politics (Zone Books, New York, 2007) 151.

2 Barnett MN, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2011).

3 Dworkin G, ‘Paternalism’ (1972) 56 The Monist 6484, esp. 70–76.

4 However, see Long D, ‘Paternalism and the Internationalization of Imperialism: JA Hobson on the International Government of the “Lower Races”’, in Long D and Schmidt B (eds), Imperialism and Internationalism in the Discipline of International Relations (SUNY Press, Albany, 2005) 7193; Hobson J, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012); and McCarthy T, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009).

5 Reus-Smit C, American Power and World Order (Polity, New York, 2004); Nye J, The Power to Lead (Oxford University Press, New York, 2010); Sorenson G, A Liberal World Order in Crisis: Choosing Between Imposition and Restraint (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2011).

6 Jackson RH, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (Oxford University Press, New York, 2000); Wheeler NJ, Saving Strangers (Oxford University Press, New York, 2001).

7 For statements on liberal empire and the liberal international order, see Muthu S, Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2003); Pitts J, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005); Metha S, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1999); Hobson (n 4); Ikenberry GJ, Liberal Order and Imperial Ambition (Polity Press, London, 2006); Ikenberry , Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011); and Sorenson (n 5).

8 Keohane RO, After Hegemony: Power and Discord in International Politics (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984).

9 Keck ME and Sikkink K, Activists Beyond Borders (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1998).

10 Robinson F, Globalizing Care: Ethics, Feminist Theory, and International Relations (Westview Press, Boulder, 1999). For statements regarding an ethics of care, see Deveaux M, ‘Shifting Paradigms: Theorizing Care and Justice in Political Theory’ (1995) 10 Hypatia 115–19; Tronto JC, ‘Care as a Basis for Radical Political Judgments’ (1995) 10 Hypatia 141–49; Engster D, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’s Nurturing Liberalism: Between an Ethic of Justice and Care’ (2001) 95 American Political Science Review 577–88.

11 Jones RW (ed), Critical Theory and World Politics (Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2001); Linklater A, Critical Theory and World Politics: Citizenship, Sovereignty and Humanity (Routledge, New York, 2007); Linklater A, The Problem of Harm in World Politics: Theoretical Investigations (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011). For a sophisticated consideration of the tensions as they pertain to humanitarianism, see Fassin D, Humanitarian Reason (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011).

12 On governmentality in international relations, see Neumann I and Sending OJ, Governing the Global Polity: Practice, Mentality, and Rationality (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2010).

13 For arguments regarding the variations in international liberalism, Zacher MW and Matthews RA, ‘Liberal International Theory: Common Threads, Divergent Strands’ in Kegley CW (ed), Controversies in International Relations Theory: Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge (St. Martin’s, New York, 1995) 107–50; Richardson JL, ‘Contending Liberalisms: Past and Present’ (1997) 3 European Journal of International Relations 534; Simpson G, ‘The Ethics of the New Liberalism’ in Reus-Smit C and Snidal D (eds), Oxford Handbook of International Relations (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008) ch 14.

14 Mill JS, On Liberty (WW Norton, New York, 1975) 1011.

15 Narayan U, ‘Colonialism and Its Others: Consideration on Rights and Care Discourses’ (1995) 10 Hypatia 133–40.

16 See (n 3) 64–84. For a sampling of the definitional debate, see Thompson DJ, Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1987) ch 6; Archard D, ‘Paternalism Defined’ (1990) 50 Analysis 3642; Garren DJ, ‘Paternalism, Part I’ (2006) 47 Philosophical Books 334–41; Garren DJ, ‘Paternalism, Part II’ (2007) 48 Philosophical Books 50–9; G Dworkin (n 3) 64–84; Gert B and Culver CM, ‘Paternalistic Behavior’ (1976) 6 Philosophy and Public Affairs 4558; Van De Veer D, Paternalistic Intervention: The Moral Bounds of Benevolence (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986); Mead LM, ‘The Rise of Paternalism’ in Mead LM (ed), The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty (Brookings Institution, Washington DC, 1997) 138; Husak DN, ‘Legal Paternalism’ in LaFollette H (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics (Oxford University Press, New York, 2003) 387412; Kelman S, ‘Regulation and Paternalism’ (1981) 29 Public Policy 219–54; and Grill K, ‘The Normative Core of Paternalism’ (2007) 13 Res Publica 441–58.

17 See Kelman (n 16); Grill (n 16); Applbaum AI, ‘Forcing a People to Be Free’ (2007) 35 Philosophy and Public Affairs 371.

18 McCarthy (n 4) 175.

19 Dirks NB, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006).

20 Duffield M, Global Governance and the New Wars (Zed Books, New York, 2001).

21 den Hartogh G, ‘Can Consent be Presumed?’ (2011) 28 Journal of Applied Philosophy 294307.

22 Shafer-Landau R, ‘Liberalism and Paternalism’ (2005) 11 Legal Theory 169–91.

23 See Tversky A and Kahneman D, ‘The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice’ (1981) 211 Science 453–58; Tversky and Kahneman , ‘Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’ (1974) 185 Science 1124–31. For an explicit connection between this work and paternalism, see Sunstein CR and Thaler RH, ‘Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron’ (2003) 70 The University of Chicago Law Review 11591202; and Ben-Porath S, Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010).

24 See McCarthy (n 4) 169; Mehta (n 7).

25 See McCarthy (n 4) 170.

26 Habibi D, ‘The Moral Dimensions of J. S. Mill’s Colonialism’ (1999) 30 Journal of Social Philosophy 125–46.

27 See Barnett (n 2) 42, for a survey of these sources of compassion.

28 The following discussion relies on Soss J, Fording RC, and Schram S, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011) 24–5.

29 Kinsella HM, The Image Before the Weapon (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2011).

30 See Soss et al (n 28) 24.

31 See Soss et al (n 28).

32 Neumann and Sending (n 12).

33 See Barnett MN and Duvall R, ‘Power in International Politics’ (2005) 59 International Organization 3975.

34 On modern international sovereignty and the conditions under which states might confer or expect recognition from other states, see Koskenniemi M, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2002); Crawford J, The Creation of States in International Law (2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006) 4586; and Osiander A, ‘Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth’ (2001) 55 International Organization 251–87.

35 See Applbaum (n 17).

36 See Jackson (n 6) 412, cited in Søbjerg LM, ‘Trusteeship and the Concept of Freedom’ (2007) 33 Review of International Studies 475–88. Also see Bain W, Between Anarchy and Society: Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003) 26, 173; Bain W, ‘The Political Theory of Trusteeship and the Twilight of International Equality’ (2003) 17 International Relations 5977; and Bain W, ‘In Praise of Folly: International Administration and the Corruption of Humanity’ (2006) 82 International Affairs 525–38. However, see Søbjerg above.

37 Zaum D, The Sovereignty Paradox: The Norms and Politics of International Statebuilding (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007).

38 See, for example, ‘The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action’, available at < > accessed 30 July 2012.

39 David Brown, ‘Surgeon seeks to prevent “unnecessary amputations” in Haiti’s earthquake zone’, Washington Post, 21 January 2010, available at <> accessed 30 July 2012.

40 See, for instance, Mead (n 16), Archard (n 16), and Van De Veer (n 16).

41 Barnett MN and Finnemore M, Rules for the World (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2004) ch 3.

42 Westerbrook R, ‘An Uncommon Faith: Pragmatism and Religious Experience’ in Rosenbaum SE (ed), Pragmatism and Religion (University of Illinois, Urbana, 2003) 194.

43 Ibid 192.

44 Ibid 195.

45 Hopgood S, ‘Moral Authority, Modernity and the Politics of the Sacred’ (2009) 15 European Journal of International Relations 229–55; and Feldman I and Ticktin M, ‘Government and Humanity’ in Feldman I and Ticktin M (eds), In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (Duke University Press, Durham, 2011) 127.

46 Ibid.

47 See Sunstein and Thaler (n 23); Sunstein CR and Thaler RH, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008); Thaler RH and Sunstein CR, ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ (2003) 93 American Economic Review 175–79; and Sunstein CR, ‘Preferences, Paternalism, and Liberty’ (2006) 81 Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 233–64.

48 See Sunstein and Thaler (n 23) 1162.

49 Ibid 1201.

50 See Ben-Porath (n 23). Concepts such as libertarian paternalism and structured paternalism exist in a grey zone between constraint and interference without consent, and, to my mind, probably lean closer to the former than the latter, and worryingly widen the meaning of paternalism to the point that it becomes indistinguishable from all forms of intervention that do respect consent.

51 For various statements on these issues, see Sunstein CR, Free Markets and Social Justice (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997), 128–50; Brint S, In an Age of Experts: The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996); Goldman M, ‘The Birth of a Discipline: Producing Authoritative Green Knowledge, World Bank-Style’ (2001) 2 Ethnography 191217.

52 Haskell TL (ed), The Authority of Experts: Studies in History and Theory (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984).

53 White JA, Democracy, Justice, and the Welfare State: Reconstructing Public Care (Penn State Press, University Park, PA, 2000) 5; Soss et al (n 28).

54 See Sunstein and Thaler (n 23); Haskell (n 52) ix–xxxix. On professions and paternalism, see Thompson (n 16) 161–64.

55 Larson MS, ‘The Production of Expertise and Constitution of Expert Power’ in Haskell TL (ed), The Authority of Experts: Studies in History and Theory (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984) 39.

56 Sugden Robert, ‘Why Incoherent Preferences Do Not Justify Paternalism’ (2008) 19 Constitutional Political Economy 229.

57 Ibrahim A and Weisband E (eds), Global Accountabilities (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007).

58 On racism see McCarthy (n 4) 84, 230; Barkan E, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the Wars (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1992). On development, see Easterly W, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin Books, New York, 2007).

59 Hochshild A, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Mariner Books, San Francisco, 2006) 314.

60 Stanley B, ‘Christianity and Civilization in English Evangelical Mission Thought, 1792–1857’ in Stanley B (ed), Christian Missions and the Enlightenment (Curzon Press, Grand Rapids, 2001) 170–71.

61 See Stanley (n 60) 172.

62 For three excellent intellectual histories of the leading thinkers on the subject of the relationship between liberalism and imperialism, see Muthu (n 7), Pitts (n 7), and Mehta (n 7).

63 See Long (n 4) 76–7.

64 Varg PA, ‘Motives in Protestant Missions, 1890–1917’ (1954) 23 Church History 75–8.

65 Adas M, Machines as a Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990).

66 Manela E, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford University Press, New York, 2009); Fox GH, Humanitarian Occupation (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008) 116.

67 See Fox (n 66) 59–69.

68 Rawls J, The Law of the Peoples (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2001). For a discussion of this Rawlsian-centred analysis and the general question of interference in post-war situations, see Recchia S, ‘Just and Unjust War Reconstruction: Just How Much Interference Can Be Justified?’ (2009) 23 Ethics and International Affairs 165–87.

69 However, Marxist ideologies also contained their own strands of developmentalism.

70 See Cooper F, ‘Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept’ in Cooper F and Packard R (eds), International Development and the Social Sciences (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998); Duffield M, Development, Security, and Unending War (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007); MN Barnett (n 2); Anderson W, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (Duke University Press, Durham, 2006); Connelly MJ, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008); Mazower M, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008); Morefield J, Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005) 108–12.

71 See Finnemore M, The Purpose of Force (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2004).

72 See, for instance, Stefano Recchia (n 68); K Lidén, ‘Can Self-Determination Be Promoted through Political Interference? The Principle of Representative Governance’ unpublished manuscript (December 2011).

73 Keohane RO, ‘Political Authority after Intervention: Gradations in Sovereignty’ in Holzgrefe JL and Keohane RO (eds), Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal, and Political Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003) 275–98; Krasner S, ‘The Case for Shared Sovereignty’(2005) 16 Journal of Democracy 6983; Krasner S, ‘Sharing Sovereignty: New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States’ (2004) 29 International Security 85120; and Fearon JD and Laitin DD, ‘Neotrusteeship and the Problem of Weak States’ (2004) 28 International Security 543.

74 Søbjerg (n 36) 479.

75 On liberal peacebuilding see, Paris R, At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004); Ponzio RJ, ‘Transforming Political Authority: UN Democratic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan’ (2007) 13 Global Governance 255–75; Chandler DC, Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (Pluto Press, London, 2006); and M Duffield (n 20).

76 For a compatible observation, see McCarthy (n 4) 181; J Morefield (n 70).

77 Watenpaugh KD, ‘The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920–1927’ (2010) 115 American Historical Review 1315–39; Mitchell T, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002); MN Barnett and M Finnemore (n 41).

78 Walker P, Hein K, Russ C, Bertleff G, and Caspersz D, ‘A Blueprint for Professionalizing Humanitarian Assistance’ (2010) 29 Health Affairs 2223–30.

79 Cornwall A and Brock K, ‘What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy? A Critical Look at “Participation”, “Empowerment”, and “Poverty Reduction”’ (2005) 26 Third World Quarterly 1043–60; A Wennmann, ‘Aid Effectiveness between “Top-Down” and “Bottom-up” Statebuilding’, CCDP Working Paper, Graduate Institute, Geneva, 2010. On peace-building, see Ford CE and Oppenheim B, ‘Neotrusteeship or Mistrusteeship? The “Authority Creep” Dilemma in United Nations Transitional Administration’ (2008) 41 Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 55105.

80 MacGinty R, ‘Hybrid Peace: The Interaction between Top-Down and Bottom-Up Peace’ (2010) 41 Security Dialogue 391412; Chesterman S, You, the People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004); Richmond OP, A Post-Liberal Peace (Routledge Press, New York, 2012); C Sriram, O Martin-Ortega, and J Herman, ‘Strategies of Peacebuilding and Accountability: An Assessment of Contemporary Trends in Practice’, paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, New York, 15 February 2009.

81 Scott D, ‘The Traditions of Historical Others’ (2012) 8 Gender, Race, and Philosophy; and Rajagopal B, International Law from Below: Development, Social Movements, and Third World Resistance (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003).

82 See, for instance, Kirkpatrick JJ, ‘Global Paternalism: The UN and the New International Regulatory Order’ (1983) Regulation 1722.

83 Rorty R, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998) 183. Also see Kinsella HM, The Image Before the Weapon (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2011) 45, where she attributes advances in international humanitarian law to gendered-notions of protection.

84 Feinberg J, Harm to Self (Oxford University Press, New York, 1986) 25; cited in de Marnefee P, ‘Avoiding Paternalism’ (2006) 34 Philosophy and Public Affairs 6994.

85 McCarthy (n 4) 183.

86 Price R, ‘Moral Limit and Possibility in World Politics’ (2008) 62 International Organization 191220.

87 McCarthy (n 4) 189.

88 See Chesterman (n 80).

89 See McCarthy (n 4) 189.

90 See Thompson (n 16) 156.

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