Paternalism, Autonomy, and Food Regulation
by Maura Priest
In 2012, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed legislation
that would ban the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces.
The growth of the obesity epidemic suggests that proposals for similar measures
will increase in coming years. As public health officials' focus shifts, campaigns
against smoking are being replaced with campaigns against sugar, fat, and carbs.
Governments may be quick to propose regulations that incapacitate our ability
to make bad health choices. Prima facie, it may seem that any inquiry into the
justificatory grounding of Bloomberg's proposal or other "food bans" would be
nothing more than re-engagement with familiar issues regarding paternalism,
coercion, liberty, and respect for persons. Governments have a long history of
approving legal mandates concerning smoking, narcotics, seat belts, vaccinations,
and more. Philosophical discussions on the aforementioned have a prolific
literature, and Bloomberg's ban might seem like just an addition to the list. If so,
we should simply re-engage old arguments and apply them to the matter at hand.
But this would be a mistake.