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Open Public Health J. 2008 Jan 1;1:8-16.

How Many Principles for Public Health Ethics?

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  • 1Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Atlanta, GA, USA.

Abstract

General moral (ethical) principles play a prominent role in certain methods of moral reasoning and ethical decision-making in bioethics and public health. Examples include the principles of respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. Some accounts of ethics in public health have pointed to additional principles related to social and environmental concerns, such as the precautionary principle and principles of solidarity or social cohesion. This article provides an overview of principle-based methods of moral reasoning as they apply to public health ethics including a summary of advantages and disadvantages of methods of moral reasoning that rely upon general principles of moral reasoning. Drawing upon the literature on public health ethics, examples are provided of additional principles, obligations, and rules that may be useful for analyzing complex ethical issues in public health. A framework is outlined that takes into consideration the interplay of ethical principles and rules at individual, community, national, and global levels. Concepts such as the precautionary principle and solidarity are shown to be useful to public health ethics to the extent that they can be shown to provide worthwhile guidance and information above and beyond principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice, and the clusters of rules and maxims that are linked to these moral principles. Future directions likely to be productive include further work on areas of public health ethics such as public trust, community empowerment, the rights of individuals who are targeted (or not targeted) by public health interventions, individual and community resilience and wellbeing, and further clarification of principles, obligations, and rules in public health disciplines such as environmental science, prevention and control of chronic and infectious diseases, genomics, and global health.

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