Public Health Autonomy: A Critical Reappraisal
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1002/hast.784
The ethical principle of autonomy is among the most fundamental in ethics, and it is particularly salient for those in public health, who must constantly balance the desire to improve health outcomes by changing behavior with respect for individual freedom. Although there are some areas in which there is a genuine tension between public health and autonomy-childhood vaccine mandates, for example-there are many more areas where not only is there no tension, but public health and autonomy come down to the same thing. These areas of overlap are often rendered invisible by a thin understanding of autonomy. Better integrating newer theoretical insights about autonomy into applied ethics can make discussions of public health ethics more rigorous, incisive, and effective. Even more importantly, bringing modern concepts of autonomy into public health ethics can showcase the many areas in which public health and autonomy have the same goals, face the same threats, and can be mutually advanced by the same kinds of solutions. This article provides a schema for relational autonomy in a public health context and gives concrete examples of how autonomy can be served through public-health interventions. It marshals insights from sociology, psychology, and philosophy to advance a theory of autonomy and coercion that recognizes three potential threats to autonomy: threats to choice sets, threats to knowledge, and threats to preferences.