Healthy eating policy and public reason in a complex world: Normative and empirical issues

Matteo Bonotti, Anne Barnhill

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Who gets to decide what it means to live a healthy lifestyle, and how important a healthy lifestyle is to a good life? As more governments make preventing obesity and diet-related illness a priority, it has become more important to consider the ethics and acceptability of their efforts. When it comes to laws and policies that promote healthy eating—such as special taxes on sugary drinks or programs to encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables—critics argue that these policies are paternalistic, and that they limit individual autonomy over food choices. In our book Healthy Eating Policy and Political Philosophy: A Public Reason Approach (Barnhill and Bonotti 2022), we argue that both paternalistic justifications for healthy eating efforts and anti-paternalistic arguments against them can be grounded in perfectionist views that overly prioritize some values over others. We therefore propose a more inclusive, public reason approach to healthy eating policy that will be appealing to those who take pluralism and cultural diversity seriously, by providing a framework through which different kinds of values, including but not limited to autonomy and health, can be factored into the public justification for healthy eating efforts. Additionally, the book adopts a ‘farm to fork’ approach to the ethics of healthy eating efforts: it engages with theories and debates in political philosophy, considers the implications of different theoretical positions for healthy eating efforts, and then develops a framework for assessing policies that can be used by researchers and policymakers. As well as offering a novel normative analysis of healthy eating policy, we also provide a theoretical framework that will be applicable beyond healthy eating policy to a wide range of public policy scenarios. We are extremely grateful to the contributors to this symposium for their thoughtful commentaries on our book. In this article, we provide a critical reflection on the issues they raise with regard to some key aspects of our analysis.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalFood Ethics
Issue number22
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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