Does one health ethics need a comprehensive theory?

By Zohar Lederman and Benjamin Capps

Main post content: What is a theory good for?  Is a comprehensive moral theory useful or merely obliged?  Could theory be necessary for making normative claims – philosophical statements that say what we ought to do – in the emergent field of One Health (OH) ethics? In a friendly response to a recent argument by colleagues that theory is merely useful, we urge for the development of a comprehensive theory, while leaving space for pragmatism.

Why do we think this discussion at all merits journal space? OH approaches to human and animal health should motivate the bioethics community to engage with topics traditionally related to public health ethics with a new lens, one that brings into focus the moral value of our fellow animals and the environment. OH encourages us to explore options that do not have much scope in traditional public health ethics.  For instance, should culling of animals be default? Or is there an obligation to vaccinate non-human primates against zoonotic pathogens such as Ebolavirus? As we continue to expand the field of OH ethics, pragmatic or practical ethics could only go so far, and the need to ground ethical discussions in one or several plausible meta-ethical theories will become increasingly evident. Public health ethics may avoid these provocative judgments by assuming the unique moral standing of human beings; public health practitioners often lack that prerogative when it affects animals and ecosystems.

Why is OH important?

The 2019 Lancet Countdown report makes grim predictions about the effects of climate change on human health, posed against a background of willful ignorance and scarce political will to do things differently. Social and natural sciences researchers, bioethicists, and the public, will have to join forces in a true OH spirit, in securing a healthy future for human children as well as those of our fellow animals and the survival of ecosystems. OH ethics will then prove crucial in informing and guiding policies and interventions.

Likewise, the ongoing COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) pandemic, now declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, illustrates, again, why One Health approaches are needed: the virus likely jumped from bats to humans through some animal intermediary, similarly to the pathogens in the same family: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Biomedical and social science perspectives, informed by a OH approach, are crucial to fully uncover the disease dynamics, address its source, and prevent similar outbreaks in the future. Bioethicists will then have to step up and suggest, devise, and criticize the various endeavors and policies put in place by different stakeholders.

The research we cite in our paper demonstrates that the evidence base for OH is becoming ever-more compelling. The last two conferences of the International Association of Bioethics included symposia dedicated to OH ethics, as is the case in the coming one. OH ethics can make a difference to public health.


Paper title: One Health Ethics: A Response to Pragmatism

Authors and affiliations:

Zohar Lederman, Shamir Medical Center, Tzrifin, Israel.

Benjamin Capps, Department of Bioethics, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Canada.

Competing interests: We declare no relevant conflict of interests.

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