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The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 369–386 | Cite as

Opportunity and Responsibility for Health

  • Eric CavalleroEmail author
Article

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Health Personal responsibility Social responsibility Equality of opportunity SES gradient in health 

Notes

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the Harvard Program in Ethics and Health for research support during an early stage of this project. For advice or comments on previous drafts I thank Hannah Byrnes-Enoch, Richard Volkman, and two anonymous reviewers for Journal of Ethics.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southern Connecticut State UniversityNew HavenUSA

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