Controversy in the Hastings Center Report: Responding to an Article on Obesity
Gregory E. Kaebnick, 01/25/2013

Controversy in the Hastings Center Report: Responding to an Article on Obesity

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Nearly everyone agrees that obesity is a significant public health problem in the United States, and nearly everyone agrees that the public health responses to it so far have been disappointing.  So what should be done about it? In the January-February issue of the Hastings Center Report, an article by Hastings Center co-founder, senior scholar, and president emeritus Daniel Callahan urges more government regulation, business initiatives, a focus on childhood prevention, and stepping up social pressure to discourage people from becoming obese.  Callahan argues that social pressure was successfully employed to reduce the incidence of smoking in the United States.

The article’s focus on social pressure is extremely controversial, as responses from the media, readers, other bioethicists, other Hastings scholars, and the general public is making abundantly clear. (These blog posts at The Atlantic and The Huffington Post are representative.) Respondents have raised a number of objections to this part of Callahan’s argument: that it gets the facts about stigmatization wrong, that the analogy to smoking mischaracterizes what was effective about smoking prevention efforts, and that it is demeaning to people who are overweight (and already agonizing about it). In addition, some who have seen reports about the article are concerned that Callahan’s position may increase school bullying.

The article is actually one of several very controversial pieces that have appeared in the Report in recent years. Others include articles on the Western media coverage of female genital cutting and on physician involvement in executions and torture. And scores of articles, essays, and other commentary in the Report have staked out positions that, though less controversial than the positions above, are still deeply objectionable to at least some readers.

The editorial decision whether to publish these pieces is often difficult, even agonizing. Accepting an article for publication may look like accepting the article’s position, but in fact, the question we try to answer is not whether we agree with the piece. The Report and the Center exist to foster free debate on important and very difficult questions, and they therefore try to avoid taking positions themselves. Those of us who edit the Report sometimes agree with what eventually appears in the Report, and sometimes disagree. (And others at The Hastings Center may agree or disagree with the Report’s decisions about publication.)

Publishing an article certainly reflects a decision that the article makes a useful contribution of some sort to the societal discussions it addresses. What counts as a “useful contribution” is complicated, though. One great way of contributing usefully to a debate is to point out the right answer to it, but even a position that is roundly rejected may be said to move a debate forward—by effectively articulating a widely held position, for example, clarifying a distinction, or showing the implications of an analogy. A widely rejected piece can also be useful by stimulating insights from readers who might then become authors themselves.

Neither do we want to go to the other extreme, of course, and stir up controversy for controversy’s sake. It is ongoing productive exchange that we seek, not just authors with whom we agree and not just authors who will goad us or our readers.

In that spirit, we invite responses to Callahan’s article, both on Bioethics Forum and in the Hastings Center Report. The responses should be thoughtful, but they may certainly disagree with the positions Callahan tries to develop, and they may disagree very strongly. We cannot promise to publish everything sent us, but we are interested in seeing your views.  We aim to use this occasion to generate wide-ranging ideas about how best to address the obesity epidemic. Those interested in writing commentaries are encouraged to contact us at

Gregory E. Kaebnick is the editor of the Hastings Center Report and editorial director of The Hastings Center.

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