The use of the concept of paternalism by the social sciences poses two epistemological problems. First, it is a polemical term: its connotation is generally negative. One does not like to have one's action being called paternalistic and would rather have it qualified as, for instance, benevolent or humanitarian. Conversely, describing someone else's action as paternalistic implies a pejorative undertone and indicates a sort of disapproval. Like populism or fascism, paternalism is not a word that social scientists can use as if it were neutral. Second, it is an equivocal notion: its definition depends on the user. Political theorists regard it as a doctrine implying an interference with individuals against their will but for their own good. Common sense views it as an attitude of protection having to do with a fatherly behavior but not necessarily with an imposition or prohibition. Social scientists have therefore to decide whether to adopt Durkheim's nominalism, and start with a definition, or Weber's comprehension, and rely on people's understanding. To claim that we should address these two issues before any discussion on paternalism means on the one hand that we should be aware of the values attached to the word and on the other hand that we have to choose between two approaches which are both legitimate and analytically orthogonal. This awareness and this choice have important consequences for our approach to paternalism.
Let us consider first the polemical dimension. As reminded by Gérard Noiriel, the term “paternalisme” was initially used in the nineteenth century by the French labor movement to criticize the way employers reproduced traditional forms of domination typical of the rural world in their relationship with their workers; by contrast, those defending this mode of production pointed to the sociologist Frédéric Le Play who pleaded in favor of a voluntary relationship of interest and affection between the employer and his workers, which he named “patronage.” Rather than dismissing it, we can consequently turn the polemical connotation into a political meaning. Taking the debates about the term and their implications seriously we are led to assume that, for those who use it, paternalism entails domination, that is, a structurally unequal relationship between agents. This is what most interpretations of paternalism seem to elude.