Public Health and the Virtues of Responsibility, Compassion and Humility

Public Health Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 3, November 2019


Original Articles
Public Health and the Virtues of Responsibility, Compassion and Humility
Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist
Public Health Ethics, Volume 12, Issue 3, November 2019, Pages 213–224,
In contrast to medical care, which is focused on the individual patient, public health is focused on collective health. This article argues that, in order to better protect the individual, discussions of public health would benefit from incorporating the insights of virtue ethics. There are three reasons to for this. First, the collective focus may cause neglect of the effects of public health policy on the interests and rights of individuals and minorities. Second, whereas the one-on-one encounters in medical care facilitate a compassionate and caring attitude, public health involves a distance between professionals and the public. Therefore, public health professionals must use imagination and care to evaluate the effects of policies on individuals. Third, the relationship between public health professionals and the people who are affected by the policies they design is characterized by power asymmetry, demanding a high level of responsibility from those who wield them.
Against this background, it is argued that public health professionals should develop the virtues of responsibility, compassion and humility. The examples provided, i.e. breastfeeding information and vaccination policy, illustrate the importance of these virtues, which needed for normative as well as instrumental reasons, i.e. as a way to restore trust.