Nowadays, we still deal with the ethical side of every public health program or initiative using concepts or ideas based on Kantianism or even Utilitarism. We overlight and quote Rose’s paradox(1), as if the population and the individual interests were the only ones that mattered on the difficult path of deciding whether a public health measure, law or policy must be implemented or not. We sometimes strive to achieve a middle point between the population’s best interest and the individual freedom. None of this is unfamiliar, however, the importance of public health as a tool to ensure the compliance of human rights is still rarely discussed.

“In the absence of action, human rights are mere words on paper”(2). This, is one of the most important critics to the human rights approach (the most common approach related to human development). It states that human rights must be associated to measures that assure to genuinely safeguard human development. Nevertheless, political agendas and public health policies around the globe do not actively direct their efforts to assure human development or human rights on the grounds that if freedom is guaranteed, human rights will be guaranteed.

No more than a year ago I met an amazingly intelligent, successful, and wonderful woman that explained to me that the human rights approach is not all. That public health is not only screening, mental health, surveillance, health promotion or Antonovsky’s view for health and illness. She explained that a theoretical negative freedom does not safeguard anything; that social justice could give more answers than questions, problems or debates. She recommended me a book in order for me to get the bigger picture, to be able to see with other eyes the ethical (or unethical) part of public health, to think public health. I’ve been reading and re-reading it ever since.

The capabilities approach (2,3) offers a list of indicators of human development. We could consider 10 central capabilities that may ensure human development (but there are other perspectives of the capabilities approach(3)). Central capabilities, or capabilities in general, are meant to be understood as a common doctrine to be considered in every policy, and more specifically in every public health policy.

Lots of public health programs focus on the power of informing the population, promoting health by every kind of activity imaginable or limiting access implicitly or explicitly to products understood as harmful. Some would define this road as a form of “desired welfarism” and not as a path to achieve human health or human development. Every piece of information, every activity, is full of ethical principles that could affect people’s preferences – and these people’s preferences affect the population’s health results. The Kantian’s idea of community of equals, the Adam Smith’s theory of the impartial spectator or even the Hampton assumption of how preferences should be examined, do not reflect that people’s preferences do not consider social justice. It is not possible to identify the preferences that are the result of unfair and hierarchical circumstances without an independent ethics theory that thinks carefully about social justice.

However, it is not my role to explain to you the theory, the book, or someone’s opinion. My goal is to make us all think and re-think, read and re-read, have another view for every initiative, program or plan. Let’s envision every project with another approach. Let’s try to make something meaningful.



  1. Rose G. The strategy of preventive medicine. The strategy of preventive medicine. University Press; 1992.
  2. Nussbaum MC. Creating capabilities: the human development approach. Harvard University Press. 2011. 256 p.
  3. Sen A. Development as freedom. Oxford New. 2001. 366 p.


Laura de la Torre Pérez
Public Health Resident
Servei de Medicina Preventiva i Epidemiologia – Hospital Clínic de Barcelona