Ethics & International Affairs

Special Section: Health and Global Justice

Responsibilities for Poverty-Related Ill Health

Thomas W. Pogge*


In a democratic society, the social rules are imposed by all upon each. As “recipients” of the rules, we tend to think that they should be designed to engender the best attainable distribution of goods and ills or quality of life. We are inclined to assess social institutions by how they affect their participants. But there is another, oft-neglected perspective which the topic of health equity raises with special clarity: As imposers of the rules, we are inclined to think that harms we inflict through the rules have greater moral weight than like harms we merely fail to prevent or to mitigate. What matters morally is not merely how we affect people, but how we treat them through the rules we impose. While current (consequentialist and Rawlsian) theorizing is dominated by the first perspective and thus supports purely recipient-oriented moral conceptions, an adequate approach to social justice requires a balancing of both. Such balancing results in a relational conception of justice, which distinguishes various ways in which an institutional scheme may causally affect the quality of life of its participants.

This essay argues that the strength of our moral reason to prevent or mitigate particular medical conditions depends not only on what one might call distributional factors, such as how badly off the people affected by these conditions are in absolute and relative terms, how costly prevention or treatment would be, and how much patients would benefit from given treatment. Rather, it depends also on relational factors, that is, on how we are related to the medical conditions they suffer. It then discusses some implications of this view for understanding responsibilities for international health outcomes.

Thomas W. Pogge has been teaching moral and political philosophy at Columbia University since receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard. His recent publications include World Poverty and Human Rights (2002), “What We Can Reasonably Reject” (NOÛS, 2002), and “On the Site of Distributive Justice” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2000). Pogge's work was supported, most recently, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He is spending the 2002-03 academic year at All Souls College, Oxford.


* A longer version of this essay, “Relational Conceptions of Justice: Responsibilities for Health Outcomes,” will appear in Sudhir Anand, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen, eds., Health, Ethics, and Equity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, forthcoming). I am grateful to the editors for permission to reuse this material here and to the editors of Ethics & International Affairs for reducing its length.