Professor Martin Wilkinson - Public Health and the Nanny State

ILAS Global Challenge lecture series

The latest in a series of Global Challenge lectures from the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences.


Nanny states treat adults like children, they get too worked up about supposed threats to health and safety, and they like being controlling. Many of us do not want what Angela Ince, a UK columnist, called ‘the whole irritating, complacent, smug, Nanny-knows-best, eat-up-your-nice-spinach-or-your-hair-won’t-curl of today’s Nanny State.’ But many of us want to be healthy rather than ill, and alive rather than dead. Does a state really nanny us when it uses its power to make us healthier? If it does, should it stop? Is it wrong to tax cigarettes heavily, sugar lightly, and alcohol in the middle? Should the density of fast-food outlets be reduced? Should advertising campaigns make smokers feel dirty or guilty?

This talk is about the nanny state criticism of public health. Public health advocates dismiss this criticism as dishonest, or incoherent, or doctrinaire, but I say the nanny state criticism should be taken seriously. I bring out three strands within it:

1) ‘Healthism’: the nanny state gives too much weight to the value of health

2) Autonomy: adults should be free to run their own lives so the state should not impose health on people

3) ‘Scepticism’: doubts that the state or public health practitioners know what they are doing or else, if they do know, that they can be trusted to do it.

Sinister corporate interests and extreme libertarians are among those who complain about the ‘nanny state’. Even so, as we shall see, they often have a point.


Martin is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland where he teaches and writes on political theory and applied ethics. He was Senior Lecturer and then Associate Professor in the University’s School of Population Health (2003-2009), chair of New Zealand’s Bioethics Council and Deputy Chair of the National Ethics Advisory Committee (two ministerial advisory committees) (2002-2016), and a member of Ministry of Health Expert Advisory Groups. He now serves on the Auckland Hospital Clinical Ethics committee.

This lecture will be available in person as well as online via Microsoft Teams.  For those attending in person, refreshments will be available from 5.30pm onwards.  For those attending online, please register (by no later than 4.00pm on the day of the lecture) and joining instructions with further information will follow ahead of the lecture. 

This lecture is free and all are welcome to attend.


Event date
Event Time
The Salvin Room, Keele Hall and Online via MS Teams
Steve Kilner
Contact email
Contact telephone
01782 7 34449