Monash Bioethics Review

, Volume 36, Issue 1–4, pp 54–67 | Cite as

Systems thinking and ethics in public health: a necessary and mutually beneficial partnership

  • Diego S. SilvaEmail author
  • Maxwell J. Smith
  • Cameron D. Norman
Original Article


Systems thinking has emerged as a means of conceptualizing and addressing complex public health problems, thereby challenging more commonplace understanding of problems and corresponding solutions as straightforward explanations of cause and effect. Systems thinking tries to address the complexity of problems through qualitative and quantitative modeling based on a variety of systems theories, each with their own assumptions and, more importantly, implicit and unexamined values. To date, however, there has been little engagement between systems scientists and those working in bioethics and public health ethics. The goal of this paper is to begin to consider what it might mean to combine systems thinking with public health ethics to solve public health challenges. We argue that there is a role for ethics in systems thinking in public health as a means of elucidating implicit assumptions and facilitating ethics debate and dialogue with key stakeholders.


Public health ethics Social networks Systems dynamimcs Systems thinking 



We would like to thank James Wilson for his important and helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We would also like to thank the Fondation Brocher; Diego Silva and Maxwell Smith were fellows there when much of the conceptualization of this paper occurred.


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Copyright information

© Monash University 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diego S. Silva
    • 1
    Email author
  • Maxwell J. Smith
    • 2
    • 3
  • Cameron D. Norman
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Faculty of Health ScienceSimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada
  2. 2.School of Health Studies, Faculty of Health Sciences, Western UniversityLondon, OntarioCanada
  3. 3.Dalla Lana School of Public HealthUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  4. 4.CENSE Research + DesignTorontoCanada

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