July 7, 2022

Nanny state and obesity #1: Punishment doesn’t work

Obesity is not determined by the foolish decisions of autonomous individuals.

Peter Singer and Daniel Callahan have recently advocated radical approaches to reducing obesity. Singer argued for taxing overweight passengers on planes, whereas Callahan has proposed a system of stigmatizing the obese. An article in the latest edition of the journal Bioethics criticizes both these solutions.

University of Sydney academic Christopher Mayes argues that Singer and Callahan falsely assume that obesity is determined by the foolish decisions of autonomous individuals. Mayes refers to various studies that point to complex socio-cultural influences, rather than free choice, being at the heart of the obesity epidemic.

One leading researcher in the field, US academic Kelly Brownell, has written that “environmental conditions can override individual physical and psychological regulatory systems that might otherwise stand in the way of weight gain and obesity, hence undermining personal responsibility, narrowing choices, and eroding personal freedoms”.

Similarly, peadiatrician and researcher Jennifer Cheng wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “People born into lower social strata are more likely than their contemporaries in higher social echelons to be born small and then to experience rapid catch-up growth leading to overweight and obesity…Making the right decisions can be extraordinarily difficult for families, because they have little true choice”.

Mayes concludes that the fight against obesity should focus on broad social and structural policy, rather than punishing individuals: “In light of this public health research, the second question – Are the strategies targeting the individual ethically justified? – must be answered in the negative.” 

Xavier Symons
Creative commons
Peter Singer