Ethical Frameworks in Public Health Decision-Making: Defending a Value-Based and Pluralist Approach

26 July 2016

A number of ethical frameworks have been proposed to support decision-making in public health and the evaluation of public health policy and practice. This is encouraging, since ethical considerations are of paramount importance in health policy. However, these frameworks have various deficiencies, in part because they incorporate substantial ethical positions. In this article, we discuss and criticise a framework developed by James Childress and Ruth Bernheim, which we consider to be the state of the art in the field. Their framework distinguishes aims, such as the promotion of public health, from constraints on the pursuit of those aims, such as the requirement to avoid limitations to liberty, or the requirement to be impartial. We show how this structure creates both theoretical and practical problems. We then go on to present and defend a more practical framework, one that is neutral in avoiding precommitment to particular values and how they ought to be weighted. We believe ethics is at the very heart of such weightings and our framework is developed to reflect this belief. It is therefore both pluralist and value-based. We compare our new framework to Childress and Bernheim’s and outline its advantages. It is justified by its impetus to consider a wide range of alternatives and its tendency to direct decisions towards the best alternatives, as well as by the information provided by the ranking of alternatives and transparent explication of the judgements that motivate this ranking. The new framework presented should be useful to decision-makers in public health, as well as being a means to stimulate further reflection on the role of ethics in public health. Keywords Decision-making Ethical frameworks Justification Public health Value pluralism