Public Health Social Justice
Sridhar Venkatapuram
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0152


Realizing social justice has always been a prominent concern of public health. From the initial founding of public health as a discipline, profession, and movement in the mid-19th century, different dimensions of the causes and societal distribution of disease, premature death, and longevity (“health inequalities”) have been understood as directly reflecting the way a society is organized and functioning. Appropriately responding to the different dimensions of health inequalities naturally leads to thinking about how a society should be organized or function—to develop a conception of a just or good society. However, the descriptive aspects of public health, the normative reasoning about social justice as well as the links between the two have been deeply contested from the beginning. The vibrant and often acrimonious public discussions in many countries and in various academic disciplines on the topic of health inequalities and social justice reflect our rapidly changing understanding of the causes and distribution of human diseases and health, scientific advances, and the social, political, and economic inequalities and transformations occurring in the world. The debates also reflect philosophical disagreements about what constitutes a good and just (global) society. Two phenomena are worth noting for their profound impact on current discussions on health and social justice. First, the initial decade of the 21st century saw the solidification and wider recognition of a corpus of epidemiological studies on the social determinants of health. This research is transforming our explanatory paradigm of disease and mortality, which previously had been focused largely on individual level factors such as genetics, individual behaviors, and proximate exposures to harmful agents. Social epidemiology expands the causal chain in time and space to include factors such as family and work environments, neighborhood, national economic and political systems, and global processes. The second phenomenon is that of globalization. Alongside the intensification of social, political, and economic interconnectedness of societies is the increased magnitude and movement of new and resurgent causes of disease and mortality—and, possibly, health and longevity—across national borders. Our knowledge of the social and global factors impacting health is rapidly expanding, and our ethical and political discussions on what the social responses should be are also quickly evolving. Despite the literature being vast, the following article reflects the fact that most of the literature has largely been produced in developed countries and in the Anglo-American philosophical traditions. The literature will likely evolve in the future to reflect both geographical and philosophical diversity.


These journals cover a range of disciplines including bioethics, political philosophy, and health policy where scholarly discussions of social justice in the domain of public health are presented. All of these journals publish state-of-the-art scholarship that is peer reviewed. Public Health Ethics frequently publishes articles on various aspects of social and global justice related to health issues. Other journals that largely focus on traditional bioethics issues such as Bioethics, American Journal of Bioethics, and Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics have also begun publishing articles related to public and global health. The Hastings Center Report is unique as it usually publishes a few long articles considered to be of important and current relevance. Some journals are more explicitly international in scope. Developing World Bioethics was created to present bioethics issues that are specific to resource poor countries and non-Western traditions of ethics. Health & Human Rights was the first journal established to bring together health issues and human rights law, practice, and philosophy. While the Lancet is mainly a journal of medical research, various dimensions of public and global health policies and needs are prominently discussed in editorials, special issues and reports, commentaries, and articles.

  • American Journal of Bioethics. 2001–.

    A highly ranked scholarly journal that publishes some of the latest scholarship in health ethics.

  • Bioethics. 1987–.

    A prominent bioethics journal that often has a theme per issue.

  • Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. 1992–.

    A high-quality bioethics journal that publishes articles that are strongly philosophical.

  • Developing World Bioethics. 2001–.

    A bioethics journal that presents issues and perspectives that reflect non-Western and non-industrialized societies.

  • Hastings Center Report. 1971–.

    A well regarded publication that often presents one or two substantive articles on topics that are seen to be subject defining.

  • Health & Human Rights. 1994–.

    The first scholarly journal devoted to bringing together both concerns for improving health and realizing human rights. The first few issues are valuable for their subject and field defining articles.

  • The Lancet. 1823–.

    The journal has been at the forefront of public and global health policy announcements, discussions and debates. Concerns for equity and justice are prominent in addition to presenting high-quality medical and health policy research.

  • Public Health Ethics. 2008–.

    A valuable resource that presents the latest scholarship on the ethics of different dimensions of public/global health issues.

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