Ethics & International Affairs Volume 16.2 (Fall 2002): Special Section on Health and Global Justice: Personal and Social Responsibility for Health [Excerpt]

Nov 25, 2002

Everyone wants to be healthy, but many of us decline to act in healthy ways. What bearing, if any, should these choices have on the ethics of clinical practice and health policy? Should risk-takers have the same claim on scarce resources, such as organs for transplant, as those whose plight is due to no choices of their own? And is there any reason not to impose fees and taxes on risk-takers, be they smokers or mountain climbers, to defray the added expense of the care they may need? In health resource allocation aimed at reducing the burden of disease, should we regard certain burdens as individual responsibilities: for example, dealing with stigma, or caretaking for family members? Socioeconomic status (SES) and health expectancy are strongly linked. To the extent that this results from risk-taking by the poor, is reduction of SES-linked health inequalities a morally important social goal? International public health aims at improving health on a population level. The World Health Organization has been criticized for failing to distinguish genuine health risks from personal lifestyle choices, as when it speaks of a tobacco-related "epidemic" as if cigarette use were a contagious disease like malaria. Should personal responsibility for health be taken into account in setting the agenda for global public health, and in measuring progress by countries in improving health. This paper addresses applications of the notions of personal and social responsibility for health. It also looks at the vulnerability of the notion of personal responsibility for health to intentional manipulation by self-interested parties in health policy debates.

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