Research Article

Between Autonomy and State Regulation: J.S. Mill's Elastic Paternalism

Raphael Cohen-Almagor 

University of Hull


This paper analyses J.S. Mill's theory on the relationships between individual autonomy and State powers. It will be argued that there is a significant discrepancy between Mill's general liberal statements aimed to secure individual largest possible autonomy and the specific examples which provide the government with quite wide latitude for interference in the public and private spheres. The paper outlines the boundaries of government interference in the Millian theory. Subsequently it describes Mill's elastic paternalism designed to prevent people from inflicting harm upon others as well as upon themselves, from soft paternalism on issues like compulsory education to hard paternalism on very private matters such as marriage, having children, and divorce by consent.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor is an educator, researcher, human rights activist and Chair in Politics, University of Hull, UK.


1   I thank Daniel Callahan, Wayne Sumner, Steve Newman and the editors of Philosophy for their constructive comments.