Journal of Public Health
The great promise at the start of the twenty-first century that Anglo-American philosophers would produce transformative theories and practical guidance for realizing global health equity and justice has largely gone unfulfilled. The publication of The Law of Peoples by John Rawls in 1999 formally inaugurated the emerging academic field of global justice philosophy.1 After 2000, numerous monographs, journal articles and conferences discussed global justice. And new academic associations, journals and research centres were established.
One remarkable aspect of the new field was that the stark inequalities in health across societies were often the starting concern. Despite our diverse philosophical and ethical views, reasonable people are likely to be morally troubled about the large inequalities in life expectancies between some sub-Saharan country X and the USA or another rich country. This initially shared moral intuition or indignation, then, motivated diverse arguments about what precisely is morally bad about global health inequalities and global poverty and the possible demands of justice. Some philosophers described what ‘our’ duties are or, indeed, are not, to help ‘those people over there’. Others minimized the distinction between us and them by arguing for theories of radical global equality, the arbitrariness of political borders and duties that follow from our complicity in transnational harms experienced in other countries.
Progress in global justice philosophy seemingly promised real-world progress in global health equity and justice, because health inequality was the foremost issue in philosophical debates on global inequality, poverty and claims of the ‘global poor’. At the same time, largely driven by HIV research, bioethics went global as it was exported alongside medical research to resource poor settings. Bioethicists also began to go beyond clinical and research settings to examine public health ethics, social inequalities in health and social determinants—from local conditions all the way to global institutions and processes. Nevertheless, as of 2020, it is difficult to identify any compelling conceptions of global justice or global health justice or to identify any significant philosophical contributions to the practical improvement of global health and inequalities. What happened?
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