Ethical analysis in public health

Lancet. 2002 Mar 23;359(9311):1055-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(02)08097-2.


Public-health regularly encounters serious ethical dilemmas, such as rationing scarce resources, influencing individuals to change their behaviour, and limiting freedom to diminish disease transmission. Yet unlike medical ethics, there is no agreed-upon framework for analysing these difficulties. We offer such a framework. It distinguishes three philosophical views, often invoked in public-health discourse: positions based on outcomes (utilitarianism), positions focused on rights and opportunities (liberalism), and views that emphasise character and virtue (communitarianism). We explore critical variations within each approach, and identify practical problems that arise in addressing the ethical dimensions of health policy. We conclude by examining challenges posed by the feminist argument of ethics-of-care and by postmodern views about the nature of ethics. Health professionals need enhanced skills in applied philosophy to improve the coherence, transparency, and quality of public deliberations over ethical issues inherent in health policy.

MeSH terms

  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Feminism
  • Human Rights
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Public Health Administration*