Empiricism, ethics and orthodox economic theory: what is the appropriate basis for decision-making in the health sector?

Soc Sci Med. 2005 Jan;60(2):265-75. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.04.034.


Economics is commonly defined in terms of the relationship between people's unlimited wants and society's scarce resources. The definition implies a central role for an understanding of what people want, i.e. their objectives. This, in turn, suggests an important role for both empirical research into people's objectives and debate about the acceptability of the objectives. In contrast with this expectation, economics has avoided these issues by the adoption of an orthodoxy that imposes objectives. However evidence suggests, at least in the health sector, that people do not have the simple objectives assumed by economic theory. Amartya Sen has advocated a shift from a focus on "utility" to a focus on "capabilities" and "functionings" as a way of overcoming the shortcomings of welfarism. However, the practicality of Sen's account is threatened by the range of possible "functionings", by the lack of guidance about how they should be weighted, and by suspicions that they do not capture the full range of objectives people appear to value. We argue that "empirical ethics", an emerging approach in the health sector, provides important lessons on overcoming these problems. Moreover, it is an ethically defensible methodology, and yields practical results that can assist policy makers in the allocation of resources.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Age Factors
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Decision Making, Organizational*
  • Empirical Research
  • Health Care Rationing / economics*
  • Health Care Rationing / ethics*
  • Health Care Sector
  • Health Priorities / economics
  • Health Priorities / ethics
  • Humans
  • Models, Economic
  • Quality of Life
  • Social Justice*
  • Social Welfare / economics*