Equity is out of fashion? An essay on autonomy and health policy in the individualized society

Soc Sci Med. 1998 Apr;46(8):1017-25. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(97)10027-2.


It is widely recognized that there is a discrepancy between principle and practice with respect to the health equity aim of public policy. This discrepancy is analyzed from two theoretical perspectives: the individualization of society and the fact that individual beliefs and values are connected to one's position in the social structure. These mechanisms influence both the choice of health policy measures and the normative judgements of preventive efforts, both of which tend to be consonant with the views of dominant social groups. In particular, we focus on the treatment of the ethical principle of autonomy and how this is reflected in health policy aimed at influencing health-related behaviour. We examine the current trend towards targeting health information campaigns on certain socio-economic groups and argue that it entails an ethical dilemma. The dominant discourse of the welfare state is contemplated as a means to understand why there tend to be a lack of emphasis on measures that are targeted at socio-economic inequalities. It is argued that there is no substantive basis in the individualized society for perceiving health equity as an independent moral principle and that the driving force behind the professed health equity goal may be in essence utilitarian.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Care Rationing*
  • Health Education
  • Health Policy*
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Humans
  • Social Class
  • Social Justice
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Sweden