Re-visioning public health ethics: A relational perspective

N.P. Kenny, S.B. Sherwin, F.E. Baylis


Canada is in the forefront of thinking about the unique and complex issues of contemporary public health ethics. However, an inordinate focus on the urgent issues of emergency preparedness in pandemic and reliance on bioethical analysis steeped in the autonomy and individual rights tradition of health care and research do not serve adequately as the basis for an ethic of public health with its focus on populations, communities and the common good.

This paper describes some concerns regarding the focus on pandemic ethics in isolation from public health ethics; identifies inadequacies in the dominant individualistic ethics framework; and summarizes nascent work on the concepts of relational autonomy, relational social justice and relational solidarity that can inform a re-visioning of public health ethics. While there is still much work to be done to further refine these principles, they can help to reclaim and centre the common and collective good at risk in pandemic and other emergency situations. Minimally, these principles require a policy-making process that is truly transparent, fair and inclusive; is sensitive and responsive to the workings of systemic inequalities; and requires public recognition of the fact that we enter any crisis with varying degrees of inequity. Public policy response to crisis must not forseeably increase existing inequities.

Key words: Ethics; social justice; community; solidarity

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