A Time for Global Health Ethics

Solomon Benatar advocates for a paradigm shift in conceptions of health and Bioethics.


It has long been known that poverty strongly influences the prevalence and mortality rates of diseases like tuberculosis. This remains true today – the Ebola epidemic emerged and raged in three of the world’s poorest countries. Yet only recently has it been widely and publicly acknowledged that health more generally is significantly determined by social circumstances.

Dramatic advances in diagnostic techniques (including sophisticated scanning methods) and in various therapeutic aspects of health care (for example, keyhole surgery and new drugs) have generated considerable optimism for narrowing health disparities and achieving convergence of global health status within a generation. This optimism is unjustified, however, because there has been relatively limited social progress within broader contexts.  For example, defining severe poverty as living on less than $2 per person per day, shamefully underestimates what it means to be poor. It also portrays unrealistic interpretations of what is required to achieve healthier and longer lives for more people.

The shift from pre-modern, non-scientific medicine to modern, highly scientific, technically oriented and personalized medicine required a new paradigm of thought. So too a shift in attention from individual health to population health requires new ways of thinking, including an expansion of the current Bioethics discourse.

The first image ever taken by humans of the whole Earth (1968), probably photographed by William Anders.

Almost 50 years ago, the looming environmental threats to health from vastly expanding (and wasteful) consumption of non-renewable resources led to a proposal that Bioethics be defined as the study of the ethics of human life, inclusive of our interactions with the biosphere.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.