Not So Special After All? Daniels and the Social Determinants of Health

Journal of Medical Ethics 35:3 - 6. (2009)
Just health: meeting health needs fairly is an ambitious book, in which Norman Daniels attempts to bring together in a single framework all his work on health and justice from the past 25 years. One major aim is to reconcile his earlier work on the special moral importance of healthcare with his later work on the social determinants of health. In his earlier work, Daniels argued that healthcare is of special moral importance because it protects opportunity. In this later work, Daniels argues that the social determinants of health (which in fact tend to have a larger effect on health outcomes than healthcare does) should also be considered special. This paper argues that it is a mistake to base a theory of justice for health on the claim that health (or the social determinants of health) are "special", for three reasons. First, once we realise that health is to a large part socially determined by features such as distribution of income, which are also of independent importance for justice, we cannot talk about a theory of justice for health in isolation from an overall theory of justice. Second, when we are trying to work out the place of health in a general theory of justice, being told that health (or the social determinants of health) is special is unhelpful. The relevant starting point should rather be whether health matters in a fundamental way for justice, or whether it matters merely for the effects it has on those goods which are of fundamental importance for justice. Third, treating the social determinants of health as special would in fact be counterproductive in terms of the broad approach to justice Daniels favours.
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