Much work in public health ethics is shaped by an ‘autonomy first’ view, which takes it to be axiomatic that it is difficult to justify state interference in the lives of competent adults unless the behaviours interfered with are compromised in terms of their autonomy, or would wrongfully infringe on the autonomy of others. However, such an approach is difficult to square with much of traditional public heath practice. Recent years have seen running battles between those who assume that an ‘autonomy first’ approach is basically sound (and so much the worse for public health practice) and those who assume that public health practice is basically sound (and so much the worse for the ‘autonomy first’ approach). This paper aims to reconcile in a normatively satisfying way what is best about the ‘autonomy first’ approach with what is best about a standard public health approach. It develops a positive case for state action to promote and protect health as a duty that is owed to each individual. According to this view, the state violates individuals’ rights if it fails to take cost-effective and proportionate measures to remove health threats from the environment. It is thus a mistake to approach public health in the way that ‘autonomy first’ accounts do, as primarily a matter of individual entitlements versus the common good. Too little state intervention in the cause of improving population health can violate individuals’ rights, just as too much can.
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