Public Health Ethics

Public health ethics involves a systematic process to clarify, prioritize and justify possible courses of public health action based on ethical principles, values and beliefs of stakeholders, and scientific and other information.

As the nation’s leading public health agency, CDC primarily takes a population-based approach to public health, targeting communities or populations in its activities. The problems that CDC addresses are often complex, involving multiple risk factors, multiple stakeholders, and many different perspectives on how to prevent or ameliorate health concerns and promote well-being.

CDC staff use a variety of scientific tools in their work — epidemiology, behavioral and social science, communication science, laboratory science, and many others. Another critical tool for public health decision making and action is public health ethics. Public health ethics brings considerations, such as principles and values, to discussions of public health policies and actions.

CDC and Public Health Ethics

What is public health ethics?

Public health ethics can be subdivided into a field of study and a field of practice. As a field of study, public health ethics seeks to understand and clarify principles and values which guide public health actions. Principles and values provide a framework for decision making and a means of justifying decisions. Because public health actions are often undertaken by governments and are directed at the population level, the principles and values which guide public health can differ from those which guide actions in biology and clinical medicine (bioethics and medical ethics) which are more patient or individual-centered.

As a field of practice, public health ethics is the application of relevant principles and values to public health decision making. In applying an ethics framework, public health ethics inquiry carries out three core functions, namely 1) identifying and clarifying the ethical dilemma posed, 2) analyzing it in terms of alternative courses of action and their consequences, and 3) resolving the dilemma by deciding which course of action best incorporates and balances the guiding principles and values.

What are the goals and structure for public health ethics at CDC?

The primary goal of CDC’s public health ethics activities is to integrate the tools of ethical analysis into day-to-day operations across CDC. The CDC Office of Science provides leadership for the public health ethics activities.

The Office of Science, in collaboration with the CDC Public Health Ethics Committee (PHEC) is responsible for building CDC’s public health ethics infrastructure, including fostering an environment and culture that supports and develops ethical practices, raising staff awareness of public health ethics, and providing tools for analyzing ethical issues. The Office of Science is also responsible for providing guidance for initiating and implementing public health ethics consultations and for educating CDC staff about public health ethics.

For more information on public health ethics at CDC please email

Page last reviewed: August 5, 2022
Content source: