Responsibility amid the social determinants of health

Bioethics 35 (1):6-14 (2020)
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Abstract

It is natural to think that there is a tight connection between whether someone is responsible for some outcome and whether it is appropriate to hold her accountable for that outcome. And this natural thought naturally extends to health: if someone is responsible for her health, then, all else being equal, she is accountable for it. Given this, some have thought that responsibility for health has an important role to play in distributing the benefits and burdens of healthcare. But there is a reason for caution. That health is influenced by social, economic, and environmental factors is a matter of consensus. And some have argued that in light of these social determinants of health, individuals are not typically responsible for their health, rendering inappropriate policies that employ a responsibility‐for‐health criterion. This debate implicates a number of overlapping concepts and questions that are often difficult to pull apart. And I worry that those who maintain that social determinants undermine responsibility for health have latched on to the wrong target. The social determinants of health are relevant to such policies, but, I argue, not by globally undermining responsibility. Rather, social determinants are sometimes responsibility‐undermining, sometimes responsibility‐preserving, and often relevant to whether we should hold individuals accountable for their health regardless of their responsibility. This calls for a more nuanced appraisal of the ways in which the social determinants of health are relevant to such policies. And here I attempt to provide one.

Author's Profile

Ben Schwan
Case Western Reserve University

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