Opportunity and Responsibility for Health

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Wealth and income are highly predictive of health and longevity. Egalitarians who maintain that this “socioeconomic-status gradient” in health is unjust are challenged by the fact that a significant component of it is owed to the higher prevalence of certain kinds of voluntary risk-taking among members of lower socioeconomic groups. Some egalitarians have argued that these apparently free personal choices are not genuinely free, and that those who make them should not be held morally responsible for the resulting harms to their health. I argue to the contrary that such choices usually are fully free, and that those who make them are responsible for their consequences. This does not imply, however, that society cannot also be responsible for those consequences. It is responsible for them if they are statistically foreseeable and avoidable outcomes of unjust public institutions and policies. I show that many of the harms to health that contribute to the voluntary behavioral component of the SES health gradient satisfy that description. Society can therefore be morally responsible for those harms, even though the individuals who suffer them are also fully responsible for them.




Cavallero, E. (2019). Opportunity and Responsibility for Health. Journal of Ethics, 23(4), 369–386. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-019-09300-7

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