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Sean McGimpsey, Kansas State University

Sean McGimpsey.jpgA paternalistic act is one in which an individual or institution interferes with another individual, without that individual’s consent, under the justification that such an act is for the affected individual’s own good. Within the framework of academic advising, an advisor can influence their advisee in a manner that would be characterized as paternalistic directly, indirectly, or through omission of relevant information. This article will first offer a conceptual analysis of paternalism and then an ethical analysis of its place within academic advising. 

Defining Paternalism

Defining paternalism requires a delicate approach. A helpful definition will outline the possibility of when paternalism is permissible and will also preferably include conditions that are not themselves normatively evaluative. Gerald Dworkin (2002), writing for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, suggests the following conditions “as an analysis of X acts paternalistically towards Y by doing (omitting) Z.” 

I. Z (or its omission) interferes with the liberty or autonomy of Y. 

II. X does so without the consent of Y. 

III. X does so only because X believes Z will improve the welfare of Y (where this includes preventing [their] welfare from diminishing), or in some way promote the interests, values, or good of Y. 

This set of conditions can be used to determine whether an action is paternalistic. It should be noted that for an act to be characterized as paternalistic, it must satisfy all three of the conditions. If one of the conditions is not met, the act in question cannot be characterized as paternalistic.  

Ethical Evaluation of Paternalism

It would be impossible to list every iteration of a paternalistic act; however, there are three reasonably common classifications of actions to review in an ethical evaluation: direct interference, approval requirements, and deceptive and/or coercive advocacy.  

Direct Interference. Direct interference is the easiest to recognize and most straightforward of paternalistic actions. An advisor directly interferes with an advisee’s autonomy by either intentionally or unintentionally deciding on a course of action for the advisee without their consent. For example, suppose that an advisor, Liz, is meeting with her advisee, Susan. Susan does not want to take a specific class for her upcoming semester and explicitly communicates that desire. Liz decides that taking the class is more beneficial for Susan than not taking the class. And despite Susan’s wishes, Liz enrolls Susan in the class.  

The interaction between Liz and Susan, though overly simplified, provides a useful example by which to utilize the evaluative set of conditions. Each of the three conditions is clearly met, and the action is easily identifiable. Please be aware that not all instances of direct interference are as immediately recognizable, and rarely are they as straightforward—functionally and ethically—as the given situation would imply. 

Most academic advising programs already work to prevent the occurrence of direct interference, in that they will often not allow advisors to make decisions on behalf of their advisee. Additionally, most common individual advising approaches are structured to avoid paternalism as they tend to encourage advisor-student cooperation.  

Approval Requirements. The second form of paternalism in academic advising lies in requiring students to seek the approval of an advisor before engaging in various activities. Universities may impose such approval requirements for changing majors, enrolling in courses, and even withdrawing from an institution entirely. This manifestation of paternalism differs from direct interference in that approval requirements are widespread and generally considered an acceptable practice.  

Approval requirements are generally implemented in one of two ways, as a mandate made by the overarching academic institution or as an individual requirement from the advisor. Both methods not only limit the autonomy of an advisee, but also noticeably impact the advisee’s perception of their autonomy. Despite the good intentions which lie behind the imposition of approval requirements, e.g. that of fostering cooperation between the advisor and advisee, the result may be to the contrary (Crookston, 1994).  

It bears mention that there are several compelling arguments in support of approval requirements, primarily in opt-in scenarios that might be otherwise avoided by a withholding of advisor approval. Those that endorse approval requirements would contend that they allow some degree of autonomy for students, while still ensuring that the advisor can offer the relevant input for critical decisions required of their advisee.  

Regarding opt-in arguments, recollect that according to condition II of the definition of paternalism, an advisor’s act is paternalistic only if done without the student’s consent. It might then be argued that when an institution makes the expectation of approval requirements clear, the student’s continued presence at the institution constitutes tacit consent. It may also be the prerogative of the institution to decide that the benefits gained from approval requirements take precedence over the cost in student autonomy they impose. Consequently, any evaluation of approval requirements is inherently more complex than direct interference. 

Deceptive and/or Coercive Advocacy. The third—and arguably most subtle—form of paternalism in advising is deceptive or coercive advocacy on the part of the advisor. This can best be described as an advisor limiting the autonomy of the advisee through selective, exclusive, or biased advocacy, either implicitly or explicitly. As it would seem, this variant of paternalism is extremely hard to recognize or prevent, as it is generally tied to individual mannerisms of advisors.  

As an example, Phil is an advisor in his institution’s College of Education. His advisee, Eric, expresses a dissatisfaction with his current courses and a desire to study a science-related field. Phil helpfully informs Eric about a degree track designed for science-oriented educators. Eric seems receptive and they work together to plan for Eric to take the necessary classes in the following semester. In this example, whether Phil was aware of the implications behind his actions, his bias for the College of Education limited the selection of advocacy that he presented to Eric. Eric might be better suited to a biology, chemistry, or kinesiology major.  

The difficulty in recognizing deceptive or coercive advocacy, is both its nature of piggy-backing onto the implicit bias of an advisor and its expansive nature. There are many decisions that could be directed by an advisor’s preferences, obligations they might have to their institution, or simply convenience. It seems almost an impossibility to remove the entirety of any bias in advocacy while the role of advisors is still occupied by individuals instead of programmed algorithms, and even those are subject to the programmer’s bias.  

There are a number of authors that would argue that some degree of bias is a necessary component of both an advisor’s duties and their normal function as a human being. These authors would contend that the role of an advisor is one of applied bias, where the advisor evaluates the relevant student’s aims and weighs those against the available options. These judgements are not necessarily morally problematic; however, they do open the possibility for a judgment to fail the student’s best interest. Advisors should take this possibility for negatively impactful bias into consideration when making relevant judgements. 

Justification of Paternalism

Paternalistic acts, at their core, are intrinsically made for the benefit of the individuals whose autonomy is being violated. While some in the academic and philosophic communities place a negative connotation on paternalism, while championing autonomy, paternalism does have its place in our world. It should also be acknowledged that an action is comprised of both the intent and the result of said action. Therefore, merely having noble intentions does not counter any negative ramification of an action.  

A helpful perspective might be to view paternalism as a spectrum, with an action being evaluated between the ethical duties of doing what is best for an advisee and respecting their autonomy. Ross (2002) describes these duties, inter alia, as prima facie duties—duties an individual is obligated to fulfill unless a more compelling moral duty arises. While useful in a general sense, the scope of Ross’ described duties is perhaps too broad to apply to the particular field of advising.  

Fortunately, literature surrounding the ethical concerns of advising provides a perspective from which to view the clash of these duties. Marc Lowenstein (2008) notes that ethical dilemmas similar to paternalism are not an uncommon occurrence for an advisor. However, while dilemmas of this nature may occur with some degree of frequency, there are few arguments that can truly illuminate which duty supersedes the other in these circumstances. Often the advisor will have to act with some sense of ethical intuition. Therefore, it might be more important for an advisor to be aware of the distinctions in duties to then make more informed decisions about individual and institutional advising practices. 

Sean McGimpsey
Undergraduate Student
College of Business Administration
Kansas State University
[email protected]


Crookston, B. B. (1994). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 5-9. doi:10.12930/0271-9517-14.2.5 

Dworkin, G. (2002), Paternalism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Ed.), Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/paternalism/  

Lowenstein, M. (2008). Ethical foundations of academic advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed., pp. 37-47). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ross, W. D. (2002). The right and the good. P. Stratton-Lake (Ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University. Retrieved from https://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/readings/ross.pdf

Cite this article using APA style as: McGimpsey, S. (2019, June). Paternalism in academic advising: A student perspective. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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