Morally Indigestible Listicles: Food, Experts, and the Burden of Choice

Never Eat

The Sydney Morning Herald (via the Telegraph, London) has published another “no-nonsense-straight-shooting-science-based” listicle of the foods YOU SHOULD NEVER EAT AGAIN! These lists seem to appear at least once every week on some form of news website.

This current list is prefaced with references to recent British Medical Journal studies that turned upside down “everything we thought we knew about eating and drinking healthily”. Instead of saturated fats being “the killer”, it turns out carbohydrates are!

Put down that bacon & egg roll and get yourself a KFC Double-Down sandwich!

Surprisingly the article doesn’t question why these new claims have a stronger knowledge base than previous claims or how we can be sure that in a week there won’t be another “nutritional revolution” that will turn this all on its head and finger protein as Grandpa’s real killer.

Leaving aside the science-base of these claims – not to imply this is unimportant – what is most disturbing about these articles (and this article in particular) is the emphasis on individual food choices as the determining factor of health. “Expert” claims that “every bacon sandwich you eat knocks half an hour off your life” reinforce ideas that my heart disease or your diabetes are reducible to that sandwich or chocolate bar eaten six years ago.

When these factoids are spoken by folks in white coats during times of austerity cuts to health services there is a real danger of compounding already existing public health policy problems by pretending that structural influences can be addressed via a nice social marketing campaign or a Jamie Oliver TV show that teaches people how to cook, garden and “never eat those foods again”.

In the UK (where this article originated) David Cameron recently flagged that sick benefits may be cut from people who are obese and do not lose weight. The rationale for this idea is that obese people can lose weight simply by making “correct” and “healthy” food choices. However, according to Cameron, they aren’t making these choices because life is too good on benefits. Hence, cut the benefits and healthy food choices will be made.

While these listicle articles may be dismissed as “not too serious” or “a bit of fun”, they depend on and reinforce a moralistic and biopolitical perspective on the relation between food, choice and health. This perspective is often used to justify budget cuts to health services due to the expectation that health is simply a matter of individuals making the right choices.

In an article for Public Health Ethics, my colleague Donald B. Thompson and I argue that this perspective is morally and scientifically unjustified. Below is the introduction. If you’d like read the whole thing but the pay wall gets in the way send me an email.

Continue reading →

Bioethics, obesity and the harm principle

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Fat people should pay more to fly, because they weigh more and hence use more fuel.
Fat people can’t make good food choices so they should be coerced and stigmatized into making the right choice.
These and other spurious ideas are permitted to float around opinion pages of leading newspapers and journals because a) we think we have a fat people problem; b) shocking, blunt and simplistic solutions to complex problems are key ingredients to “click-bait”; and c) if we can reduce complex problems to economic calculations then we can pretend moralistic interventions into peoples lives are “neutral” because, hey it’s the raw numbers talking.
Anyway, in the below paper published this week I argue against Peter Singer and Dan Callahan’s attempts to justify direct interventions into the lives of fat people based on a simplistic use of the harm principle and a deep ignorance of empirical and public health research on obesity. Or as H.L. Mencken quipped, “For every human problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
If you can’t get beyond the paywall send me an email or message.

The Harm of Bioethics: A Critique of Singer and Callahan on Obesity

Abstract

Debate concerning the social impact of obesity has been ongoing since at least the 1980s. Bioethicists, however, have been relatively silent. If obesity is addressed it tends to be in the context of resource allocation or clinical procedures such as bariatric surgery. However, prominent bioethicists Peter Singer and Dan Callahan have recently entered the obesity debate to argue that obesity is not simply a clinical or personal issue but an ethical issue with social and political consequences.

This article critically examines two problematic aspects of Singer and Callahan’s respective approaches. First, there is an uncritical assumption that individuals are autonomous agents responsible for health-related effects associated with food choices. In their view, individuals are obese because they choose certain foods or refrain from physical activity. However, this view alone does not justify intervention. Both Singer and Callahan recognize that individuals are free to make foolish choices so long as they do not harm others. It is at this point that the second problematic aspect arises. To interfere legitimately in the liberty of individuals, they invoke the harm principle. I contend, however, that in making this move both Singer and Callahan rely on superficial readings of public health research to amplify the harm caused by obese individuals and ignore pertinent epidemiological research on the social determinants of obesity. I argue that the mobilization of the harm principle and corresponding focus on individual behaviours without careful consideration of the empirical research is itself a form of harm that needs to be taken seriously.

Keywords: obesity; Peter Singer; Dan Callahan; harm principle; public health

Mayes, C. (2015), The Harm of Bioethics: A Critique of Singer and Callahan on Obesity. Bioethics, 29: 217–221. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12089

Continental Philosophy and Bioethics: Part 1 – Challenges and Dissmissals

Both bioethics and continental philosophy are outliers of “mainstream” philosophy. However, their shared outlier status has not resulted in camaraderie but mutual suspicion, if not contempt. Brian Leiter describes bioethics as possessing a “dim reputation in academic philosophy”.[i] While bioethicists such as Daniel Callahan describe continental philosophy “as not philosophy at all”.[ii]

Perhaps the intention of these comments is to dismiss rather than challenge continental philosophy or bioethics, but I have taken them as a challenge. I am not interested in defining these disciplines or academic fields; especially as the work of philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas or Jeffrey Bishop demonstrates the artificial nature of the boundaries surrounding these classifications. However, there is a general bar or faculty room acceptance of Leiter’s characterization of bioethics and Callahan’s assessment of continental philosophy. Depending on philosophical predilections Leiter’s remark may have raised a smile or Callahan’s evaluation a smirk. As someone trying to simultaneously swim in the continental and bioethics streams I find these comments frustrating, yet acknowledge the pressing challenges issued in both.

The challenge issued to bioethics from philosophy, not just from Leiter but a host of others, can be summarized as: (i) bioethics is too close to industry (broadly construed); (ii) bioethics is philosophically limited; (iii) bioethics is philosophically monotonous.

The challenge issued to continental philosophy from bioethics, and again not just from Callahan, can be summarized as: (i) continental philosophy is too theory-laden; (ii) continental philosophy is too descriptive and lacks normative application; and (iii) continental philosophy cannot be translated into policy.

In response, I do not intend to merely defend these academic fields, but acknowledge the challenges and suggest that despite apparent opposition they can fruitfully support each other and produce important analytic insights and ethical engagements.


[i] Brian Leiter, “American Journal of Bioethics, Redux: Is this for real?Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, 2012, . [Accessed on December 3, 2012].

[ii] Daniel Callahan, The Roots of Bioethics: Health, Progress, Technology, Death  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 9.