The Nanny State Debate: A Place Where Words Don't Do Justice

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This report looks critically at the nanny state debate. It has been produced under the coordination of Dr Farhang Tahzib, Chair of the Public Health Ethics Special Interest Group of the UK Faculty of Public Health. It is intended as a resource for members of the public health community whose own reflections or practice are affected by nanny state concerns, and for other readers who may be interested in the ethical legitimacy of public health practice and policy.

The nanny state is a frequent point of reference in academic, public, and political debates on public health policy. As with many political slurs, it refers at once both to valid and invalid concerns. It reduces these to hard-hitting and often logically-incoherent rhetoric; rhetoric that obscures meaningful discussion and obstructs pathways (whatever one’s political leanings) to a fairer, healthier society.

At its best, the nanny state is intended to represent a political-philosophical position; a view on public health ethics and on the source and constraints of politically legitimate actions and agendas of government. At its worst, it is an incoherent slogan that is lazily or cynically made against policies that a person, group, or organisation wants to shout down without explaining why. Either way, nanny state accusations require to be scrutinised because the nanny state debate directly impacts policies that may protect or promote the public’s health, as well as people’s views on such policies.

Accordingly, this report aims to summarise and explain key points implied by and related to the nanny state in practice: it aims to make clear what people ‘do’ with nanny state accusations, and how we might respond to their claims. It discusses these matters as part of broader political debates that impact on efforts ethically to protect and promote the public’s health. It does so too with regard to a social context in which damage is done—in the form of harms and injustices—by questionable arguments that are based on nanny state accusations.

An earlier draft of this report was circulated to colleagues working in public health ethics, leadership, practice, and training. The author gratefully acknowledges the comments, observations, and questions that were provided consequent to that consultation exercise.

Responsibility for the final drafting and the views expressed is the author’s own.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherFaculty of Public Health
Number of pages36
ISBN (Electronic)9781900273763
ISBN (Print)9781900273763
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018

Structured keywords

  • Bristol Population Health Science Institute


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