Online Program

On a distinction between operational & structural public health law: Avoiding the is-ought fallacy

Monday, November 4, 2013 : 12:45 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.

Daniel Goldberg, J.D., Ph.D, Department of Bioethics & Interdisciplinary Studies, The Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC
Intended for an expert audience, the thesis of this paper is that understanding a distinction between “operational” and “structural” public health law is critical not only to making sense of public health law, but also to avoiding the is-ought fallacy. The basic difference between law that governs daily public health practice and law that shapes and reflects the selection of public health priorities and interventions is generally accepted. However, the distinction and its implications for public health law and ethics have yet to be rigorously explained and analyzed. This paper aims to fill the gap by expounding the characteristics of public health law that reflect the fluid boundaries of public health practice and that which determines which public health problems and interventions are defined as priorities within the scope of public health practice. The operational-structural distinction is important because while the former helps determine the limits of public health practice, it is less helpful in advancing debate on what public health stakeholders ought to prioritize and act on. Accordingly, understanding the distinction may help avoid the is-ought fallacy in which what public health actors actually do is erroneously taken to define the limits of that which they ought to do. The paper concludes by observing that while the operational-structural distinction is both meaningful and useful, there remains significant overlap between the two categories of public health law. Such overlap is essential if the capacity for public health practice to impact the broad determinants of population health is to be maximized.

Learning Areas:

Ethics, professional and legal requirements
Public health or related laws, regulations, standards, or guidelines
Public health or related public policy

Learning Objectives:
Differentiate “operational” and “structural” public health law; Identify three reasons why the distinction between structural and operational public health law matters for public health; and Explain how the operational-structural distinction in public health law can help avoid the is-ought fallacy

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am an attorney with specific expertise in public health law and public health policy. I am adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health at my local institution, and am lead instructor for a required course in the ethics & law of public health. I have published several papers regarding various aspects of public health law.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.