Public health ethics theory: review and path to convergence

J Law Med Ethics. 2012 Spring;40(1):85-98. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-720X.2012.00648.x.


Public health ethics is a nascent field, emerging over the past decade as an applied field merging concepts of clinical and research ethics. Because the "patient" in public health is the population rather than the individual, existing principles might be weighted differently, or there might be different ethical principles to consider. This paper reviewed the evolution of public health ethics, the use of bioethics as its model, and the proposed frameworks for public health ethics through 2010. Review of 13 major public health ethics frameworks published over the past 15 years yields a wide variety of theoretical approaches, some similar foundational values, and a few similar operating principles. Coming to a consensus on the reach, purpose, and ends of public health is necessary if we are to agree on what ethical underpinnings drive us, what foundational values bring us to these underpinnings, and what operating principles practitioners must implement to make ethical decisions. If public health is distinct enough from clinical medicine to warrant its own set of ethical and philosophical underpinnings, then a decision must be made as to whether a single approach is warranted or we can tolerate a variety of equal but different perspectives.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Humans
  • Public Health Practice / ethics*