Obesity, political responsibility, and the politics of needs
- 207 Downloads
Since overweight and obesity have been framed as one of the main contemporary health challenges in industrialized countries, it has become a matter of public health efforts. While the belief that obese individuals are personally responsible for their body weight prevails in public opinion, evidence-based health science widely acknowledges that obesity is significantly influenced by socio-economic factors and thus that prevention requires structural changes. This constellation bears the chance of politicizing an issue formerly conceived of as private which really is dependent on societal contingencies, such as the particular availability of food. Reflecting on the prevention of obesity from an ethical point of view, therefore, requires an elaborate concept of political responsibility. The core thesis of this paper is that existing approaches within the field of obesity ethics fall short in reasonably grasping the political dimensions at play, due to the prevailing individualistic understanding of responsibility. Drawing upon Iris Marion Young’s concept of political responsibility, I propose an alternative approach that emphasizes the structural determinants of obesity. By arguing this way, obesity prevention comes into view as a public endeavor that involves public discourse as well as shared action. Political responsibility then cannot be discharged merely by intrusive governmental action nor by individuals on their own, but should be considered as a task all of us share. As I will sketch in the last part of the paper, this includes contesting discourses on interpretations of need. Thereby, the paper contributes to recognizing obesity as a social instead of an individual problem.
KeywordsObesity Responsibility Public health Ethics Political philosophy
I would like to thank Anne Cress, Danielle Norberg, Lisa Neher, Antje Géra, Eva-Maria Scheiber, Elisabeth Conradi, Oliver Honer, and the anonymous referees for this journal for their comments on previous drafts of this paper.
This paper is part of project “Ethical aspects of the prevention of obesity in Europe. A comparison of the situation in Western and Eastern Europe in selected countries” (Award No. 01DS17005) that has been funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung). The responsibility for the publication’s content lies with the author.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.
- Arendt, Hannah. 1994. Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility. In Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, ed. Jerome Kohn, 121–132. New York: Harcourt-Brace.Google Scholar
- Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition, Introduction by Margaret Canovan, 2nd ed. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Azétop, Jacquineau and Tisha R. Joy. 2011. Epistemological and Ethical Assessment of Obesity Bias in Industrialized Countries. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 6 (16): 1–16.Google Scholar
- Dawson, Agnus. 2001. Resetting the Parameters: Public Health as the Foundation for Public Health Ethics. In Public Health Ethics. Key Concepts and Issues in Policy and Practice, ed. Agnus Dawson, 1–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Fraser, Nancy. 1989. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
- Robertson, A., T. Lobstein, and C. Knai. 2007. Obesity and Socio-economic Groups in Europe: Evidence. Brussels: European Commission. http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_determinants/life_style/nutrition/documents/ev20081028_rep_en.pdf. Accessed 18 July 2018.
- Rothblum, Ester D. and Sondro Solovay (ed.). 2009. The Fat Studies Reader. Foreword by Marilyn Wann. New York/London: New York University Press.Google Scholar
- Sallis, James F., A. Jordan Carlson, Alexandra M. Mignano, Amanda Lemes, and Nicole Wagner. 2013. Trends in Presentations of Environmental and Policy Studies Related to Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity at Society of Behavioral Medicine, 1995–2010: A Commentary to Accompany the Active Living. Research Supplement to Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 45 (Suppl 1): 14–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Schorb, Friedrich. 2015. Die Adipositasepidemie als politisches Problem. Gesellschaftliche Wahrnehmung und staatliche Intervention. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
- Siahpush, Mohammad, Melissa Tibbits, Raees A. Shaikh, K. Gopal Singh, Asia Sikora Kessler, and Terry T.-K. Huang. 2015. Dieting Increases the Likelihood of Subsequent Obesity and BMI Gain: Results from a Prospective Study of an Australian National Sample. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 22 (5): 662–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Wann, Marilyn. 2009. “Foreword: Fat Studies: An Invitation to Revolution.” The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay, London/New York: New York University Press, ix–xxvi.Google Scholar
- Wilkerson, Abby. 2010. From the Land of the Fat to the Fat of the Land: The Food Contract, Food Cultures, and Social Justice. In Whose Weight It Anyway. Essays on Ethics and Eating, ed. Sofie Vandamme, Suzanne van de Vathorst, and Inez D. de Beaufort, 143–157. Leuven: Acco.Google Scholar
- World Health Organization. 2000. Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic: Report of a WHO Consultation. Geneva: World Health Organization.Google Scholar