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The Goals of Public Health: An Integrated, Multidimensional Model

Journal article
Authors Christian Munthe
Published in Public Health Ethics
Volume 1
Issue 1
Pages 39-52
ISSN 1072-7928
Publication year 2008
Published at Department of Philosophy
Pages 39-52
Language en
Keywords bioethics, ethics, medical ethics, public health, public health ethics, population health, autonomy, equality
Subject categories Health Care Service and Management, Health Policy and Services and Health Economy, Public Health, Global Health, Social Medicine and Epidemiology, Public health medicine research areas, Practical philosophy


While promoting population health has been the classic goal of public health practice and policy, in recent decades, new objectives in terms of autonomy and equality have been introduced. These different goals are analysed, and it is demonstrated how they may conflict severly in several ways, leaving serious unclarities both regarding the normative issue of what goal should be pursued by public health, what that implies in practical terms, and the descriptive issue of what goal that actually is pursued in different contexts. A basic conflict of perspective is handled by integrating the ideas of public health striving for health-related autonomy and equality, resulting in a prioritarian oriented population approach to health-related autonomy. This integrated goal is demonstrated to constrain itself in several ways attractive from the point of view of the classic goal, but several serious problems remain. For this reason, a model where all of the three goals are integrated into one coherent structure where they can be assigned varying degrees of importance relative to the level of population health is described. It is argued that this model avoids the problems set out earlier, and is actually normatively preferable to the classic goal alone. It is furthermore argued that the model may be employed as a useful tool for descriptive ethics, as well as a vehicle for international harmonisation of public health policies. A number of practical implications regarding, e.g., the importance of respecting autonomy and the allocation of public health resources are noted, as are a battery of questions for further research.

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