Health promotion: an ethical analysis12 January 2015
Thinking and practising ethically requires reasoning systematically about the right thing to do. Health promotion ethics – a form of applied ethics – includes analysis of health promotion practice and how this can be ethically justified. Existing frameworks can assist in such evaluation. These acknowledge the moral value of delivering benefits. But benefits need to be weighed against burdens, harms or wrongs, and these should be minimised: they include invading privacy, breaking confidentiality, restraining liberty, undermining self-determination or people’s own values, or perpetuating injustice. Thinking about the ethics of health promotion also means recognising health promotion as a normative ideal: a vision of the good society. This ideal society values health, sees citizens as active and includes them in decisions that affect them, and makes the state responsible for providing all of its citizens, no matter how advantaged or disadvantaged, with the conditions and resources they need to be healthy. Ethicists writing about health promotion have focused on this relationship between the citizen and the state. Comparing existing frameworks, theories and the expressed values of practitioners themselves, we can see common patterns. All oppose pursuing an instrumental, individualistic, health-at-all-costs vision of health promotion. And all defend the moral significance of just processes: those that engage with citizens in a transparent, inclusive and open way. In recent years, some Australian governments have sought to delegitimise health promotion, defining it as extraneous to the role of the state. Good evidence is not enough to counter this trend, because it is founded in competing visions of a good society. For this reason, the most pressing agenda for health promotion ethics is to engage with communities, in a procedurally just way, about the role and responsibilities of the citizen and the state in promoting and maintaining good health.