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Strengthening the Capacity for Ethical Public Health

By Prof John Coggon, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Health, Law, and Society (University of Bristol Law School).  Honorary Member of the Faculty of Public Health.*

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Public health is proudly an evidence-based field. But evidence without values cannot tell us what we should do.

We need public health ethics if we are to understand and explain, by reference to the classic definition of public health advanced by Winslow, what we, as a society, ought to do to assure the conditions in which people can enjoy good health and equitable prospects for health. Using the ‘organised efforts of society’ to protect and promote health and well-being is an ethical goal—indeed, as many of us would argue, it is an ethical imperative. And to be achieved, it requires law and policy. To evaluate when threats to health warrant a public health response, scientific analyses must be complemented by matters such as the balancing of values, an assessment of the relative merits of different possible interventions, an appreciation of the likely risks and impacts of intervening, and a sensitivity to political and cultural contexts and realities. Continue reading