Paternalism refers to a policy that prevents others from doing harm to themselves or a belief in such policies. For example, someone would be practicing a paternalistic philosophy by forcibly restraining another person from committing suicide, from doing drugs, or from committing any action considered harmful by the paternalist. A paternalist, then, by definition, believes that she knows more than the person she is trying to prevent from harming himself. The paternalist destroys the freedom of choice of the person "harming" himself in exchange for his well-being.

Governments are often faced with the choice of adopting various kinds of paternalistic legislation. Among the most controversial of these issues are gay marriage, abortion, gun control, and the legal status of cannabis. Among the most famous examples of a massive failure of paternalism was the era of Prohibition in the United States.

Opponents of paternalism, such as John Stuart Mill, claim that liberty supersedes saftey in terms of actions that only affect oneself. Advocates of paternal often believe that they posess some sort of "higher" knowledge than those they seek to limit, such as a religious, ethical, or philosophical doctrine, and will argue that while it is not moral to deprive someone of their liberty in a general situation, it is correct in their specific instance.