Balancing Public and Individual Interests: A Philosophical Analysis

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The specific context in which the topic of this essay arises is the use of “non-medical exposures”, i.e. the use of X-rays in various forms in specified situations. The particular issue is the extent that one can justifiably resort to such exposures in circumstances which are not determined by or necessitated on medical grounds. Following from the reflections at the 2002 International Symposium on Medico-legal Exposures the question that requires attention here is: given our present awareness of a tension between the individual and public interests, how one can strike a balance such that one does justice to both?

Since my own background is philosophy, and more specifically, ethics, my contribution to the present discussion will take the shape of a philosophical analysis. By this I mean focusing on the relevant issues by firstly providing a wider philosophical context to the topic and then offering some relatively specific guidelines. The hope is that with these, those who do have to make the judgment as to the use of non-medical exposures in the various situations will be enabled to make an ethical judgment. There is some advantage in engaging in a philosophical analysis when one is looking at specific situations, even if at times it does complicate matters, in that a different way of viewing the perceived tensions in these situations can result, if not in a resolution, at least in a clearer perception of the important issues. At times, it may even change one's understanding of the tension itself. It is a claim that of course remains to be seen.

There is a wider context that we need to become aware of at the outset; namely, that the question of the relationship between the individual and society, of which our topic today is a part, is an ever-recurring problem. Should a human being be considered primarily as an individual, responsible for oneself alone and therefore above society; or should society be given the preference thereby making the individual, not necessarily a fragment of society, but subservient to it? To deal with the question, some tend to emphasize society or the social aspect of the human self, his or her obligations to the rest of the group or the fact that the human self is formed physically, mentally and psychologically within society. These would seem to uphold the priority of society over the individual members. Others, in contrast, would be inclined to underline the dignity of the individual being and would therefore claim that no society has the right to suppress any individual member or to treat him or her as if they were merely jigsaw pieces whose value lies in fitting into the whole pattern of society. The challenge to those who would not go along with either standpoint is to look for a balance. That is our present task here—a task that is daunting not only because situations are different and distinct, as borne out in the papers from the previous symposia, and may therefore require some fine tuning to whatever is considered as acceptable but also because making a judgment that is ethically justified is itself a highly complex one.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

More about this publication?
  • Ethical Contexts and Theoretical Issues: Essays in Ethical Thinking
    Compared to the traditional approach to the philosophical study of ethics, this book adopts a different strategy. It shows that such ethical thinking, in the concrete particulars, originates in various academic and professional contexts, among others. But inasmuch as theoretical issues require wider and more intensive attention, it argues that ethical thinking needs to be pursued further and that it can be aided by philosophical investigations. In its concluding chapters the book presents an alternative foundation for ethical decision-making. Philosophically grounded, it moves away from an individualistic ethical perspective to a relational one that has been shaped through dialogue with the various contexts in which ethical thinking arises.
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