This summary was provided by Rock Ethics Graduate Student Fellow David Agler


On November 28th, the Rock Fellows Seminar took part in a workshop for Christopher Mayes, a postdoctoral scholar in the Rock’s Bioethics Initiative. Mayes’s paper “Measuring Up the Future Subject: Obesity and the Political Rationality of ‘Pre,’ offers an analysis of discourse in Australia used to target ‘pre-obese’ subjects in an effort to promote future health and economic security.

Mayes began the workshop with a brief overview of his paper. Mayes claimed that the theoretical framework of “pre” is general notion used to capture preemptive, precautionary, and preventive principles that aim at predicting and pre-empting threats prior to their actualization. A key theme of his paper (drawing from Diprose, Francois Ewald, and others) is the shift from a perception of risk that is naturally occurring and calculable to one that is incalculable and the result of human agency, particularly with respect to how the latter can lead to catastrophe.

Mayes draws upon governmental and bioethical literature (rather than risk management literature) in order to frame how obesity fits into this theoretical framework. Specifically, he does this by focusing on three relationships that characterize political rationality: (i) the relation of the present to the future, (ii) the relation freedom has to security, and (iii) the relation an individual has to populations. Mayes uses his theoretical framework of “pre” to diagnosis the Australian government’s response to obesity in its Measure Up campaign (see While the campaign is described in detail in his paper, Mayes initial presentation involved a brief introduction of various public health videos that have been used in Australia and also distributed a measuring tape used to determine the degree to which you may be at risk for obesity. 

Discussion in the workshop centered around six central topics. 
(1) One statistic in a video in the Measure Up campaign noted that 1 in 2 Australians are overweight. This statistic was thought to conflate being obese (which is thought to reflect negative health) and being overweight but healthy (e.g. someone with great cardiovascular health and low body fat). In addition, this statistic emphasizes the rhetoric of “pre” since it targets to overweight individuals as falling in the range of the “pre-obese” and it leads to a question about what criteria are used to identify the “pre-obsese.”
(2) Another topic of discussion had to do with the severity of the threat of pre-obese individuals and whether or not the urgency of the threat matches the severity of the rhetoric (e.g. pre-obese children are ticking time bombs). 
(3) Another issue had to do with the scope and locus of responsibility. Much of the discourse in the public health initiative focuses on encouraging individuals to change, but there was discussion about the extent to which the locus of responsibility should be directed at corporations and governmental systems that market or promote high-sugar and high fat foods. 
(4) There was considerable discussion about what pragmatically-speaking (and ethically-speaking) is the best way to promote public health. For example, would it be ethically justifiable to use scare-tactics in public health campaigns? There was some discussion that while the use of emotional-charged narratives about individuals is more effective at motivating public health than bare statistics, there was some concern that this might not be sensitive to individuals affected by certain health maladies (e.g. victims of lung cancer). In addition, it was expressed that it is perhaps easier to influence individual consumers than to enact influence over powerful industries. 
(5) There was some discussion that much of the rhetoric in public health initiatives uses language designed to induce fear rather than to promote certain ideals. This strategy seems to rely on motivating individuals away from something negative instead of motivating them to seek certain aspects of human flourishing. 
(6) Finally, there was considerable interest in the specific interactions of government agencies with advertising agencies.
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