Obesity, political responsibility, and the politics of needs

  • Kaja TulatzEmail author
Scientific Contribution


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.


Obesity 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.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social Work, Health Care and Nursing SciencesEsslingen University of Applied SciencesEsslingenGermany

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