Journal of Institutional Economics

Research Article

Priority setting in health care: from arbitrariness to societal values


a1 EconomiX, University Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France

a2 Girton College, University of Cambridge, UK

a3 Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK


This paper develops an account of the normative basis of priority setting in health care as combining the values which a given society holds for the common good of its members, with the universal provided by a principle of common humanity. We discuss national differences in health basket in Europe and argue that health care decision-making in complex social and moral frameworks is best thought of as anchored in such a principle by drawing on the philosophy of need. We show that health care needs are ethically ‘thick’ needs whose psychological and social construction can best be understood in terms of David Wiggins's notion of vital need: a person's need is vital when failure to meet it leads to their harm and suffering. The moral dimension of priority setting which operates across different societies’ health care systems is located in the demands both of and on any society to avoid harm to its members.

(Online publication July 18 2012)