A balanced intervention ladder: promoting autonomy through public health action

Public Health. 2015 Aug;129(8):1092-8. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2015.08.007. Epub 2015 Aug 29.


The widely cited Nuffield Council on Bioethics 'Intervention Ladder' structurally embodies the assumption that personal autonomy is maximized by non-intervention. Consequently, the Intervention Ladder encourages an extreme 'negative liberty' view of autonomy. Yet there are several alternative accounts of autonomy that are both arguably superior as accounts of autonomy and better suited to the issues facing public health ethics. We propose to replace the one-sided ladder, which has any intervention coming at a cost to autonomy, with a two-sided 'Balanced Intervention Ladder,' where intervention can either enhance or diminish autonomy. We show that not only the alternative, richer accounts of autonomy but even Mill's classic version of negative liberty puts some interventions on the positive side of the ladder.

Keywords: Intervention ladder; John Stuart Mill; Nanny state; Nuffield council on bioethics; Public health ethics.

MeSH terms

  • Australia
  • Bioethics
  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Humans
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Public Health / ethics*