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Ethical Principles and Public Health

Ethical Principles of Public Health

History Of Public Health Issues I

The Greek historian Thucydides described a plague in Athens between 430 and 427 BC. The plague took the lives of many Athenians; perhaps one third of the population of Athens was lost, Thucydides wrote of problems such as social unrest, rebellion against law and order, and the difficulties of deciding how to treat the sick, how to protect the healthy, and how to dispose of the bodies of those who had died.


History of Public Health Issues Ill

More recently, in 2014, the largest Ebola virus epidemic in history occurred in West Africa, causing widespread concern around the world, including challenging questions about the morally appropriate way to treat people who had been exposed to the virus. Terminology

The term public health refers to the physical well- being of the population of a given group of people. The term also refers to the deliberate effort to study and organize matters of health science and population management for the sake of protecting citizens.

For example, the World Health Organization defines public health as “all organized measures to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole.”

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization in the United States, defines public health as “the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research, and the detection and control of infectious diseases.”  Moral Implications of Public Health Policy

To understand the moral implications of public health policy, consider the recent cases of Americans who were exposed to the Ebola virus. An American citizen who was recently in West Africa returned to the United States after possibly being exposed to the Ebola virus. How should public health officials deal with such a case? Public health officials would likely agree that a careful screening process should take place and perhaps a period of quarantine would
be necessary:

But they might disagree over a fundamental ethical point: whether the good of the group or the good of the individual is more important.  Perspective 1: priority on the Individual

One perspective states that the priority must be placed on the rights of the individual. This approach holds that the rights of the individual are more fundamental, and they take precedence over the common good.

The common good is important and must be protected, but not if doing so requires the violation of individual rights such as life and liberty. In other words, nothing justifies violating the rights or the dignity of the individual person. This perspective defines society as a group of individual people. The common good would be meaningless without individual rights.

From this perspective, one might hold that the person exposed to Ebola can be screened and
quarantined only if that process does not violate a person’s moral rights or dignity.  Perspective 2: Priority on the Common Good

A second perspective emphasizes the common good over the rights of the individual. In this
approach, one might tend to say that whatever is required to protect the community is justified.

The rights of the individual are important, but the common good is of higher value. If the security of the common good requires the violation of individual rights, then such violations would be justified.  Some might be inclined to argue that there are no innate human or moral rights. Rather, rights are human constructs; human beings invent rights. Thus, human beings can remove them at will.
Protecting the good of the community is a sufficient reason for overriding the rights of an individual, and society can justly override the rights of the individual for the sake of the common good.

This perspective holds that the person exposed to Ebola can be screened and quarantined even if that process violates the person’s moral rights or dignity.    




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