Ethics, Politics, and Georgetown Public Health Law

In 2014, Gratuitous self-promotion, Public Ethics on February 10, 2014 at 11:42 am

Last week I was delighted to visit Georgetown University. In particular, it was a great pleasure to meet up with Larry Gostin in the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Larry’s work has been crucial in shaping contemporary understandings of public health law and ethics; my main areas of research. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to discuss with him my own teaching and research agendas, including the work that A.M. Viens and I are up to in HEAL developing specialist teaching in Public Health, Law, and Ethics for Southampton’s new MSc in Public Health.

The primary reason for my visit was to give an invited lecture to JD and LLM students studying public health law in Georgetown Law. The lecture was entitled “Political Theory in Public Health Ethics”. In part, it involved teaching some of the fundamentals (at least as I see them!) in bringing ethical analysis to public health practice and policy. However, my main aim was to challenge the students to consider not just the nature, but also the scope, of normative claims made in the name of public health. Having examined the necessary relationships between public health and law, I invited the students to think about two distinct modes of ‘doing’ public health ethics.

In relation to the first, we studied the work of scholars who are interested in theorising: we looked at ideas concerning conceptual coherence, normative and analytical rigour, and theoretical bounds (or lack of them) to claims made in public health ethics. The lecture surveyed some of the many different ethical theories that are brought to bear on public health, and scrutinised their bases and conclusions. As regards the second, we looked at ethics in public advocacy, referring to ideas such as ‘nudge’, ‘stewardship’, and the human right to health. Here we asked not just how robust these positions are in theory, but how robust we really want or need them to be in practice.

My hope with the class was that the students would address the very basics of whatever motivates their ideas about good practice in public health law and policy; to think about what makes health promotion desirable, or even an imperative (and what brakes there ought to be on health promotion). But I also hope that it left them thinking about the potentially distinguishable roles of academic and activist, and which (neither, either, or both) they would wish to assume, and on what terms.

John Coggon

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