Document Type


Publication Date



By default, the courts are inventing health law. The law governing the American health system arises from an unruly mix of statutes, regulations, and judge-crafted doctrines conceived, in the main, without medical care in mind. Courts are ill-equipped to put order to this chaos, and until recently they have been disinclined to try. But political gridlock and popular ire over managed care have pushed them into the breach, and the Supreme Court has become a proactive health policy player. How might judges make sense of health law's disparate doctrinal strands? Scholars from diverse ideological starting points have converged toward a single answer: the law should look to deploy medical resources in a systematically rational manner, so as to maximize the benefits that every dollar buys. This answer bases the orderly development of health care law upon our ability to reach stable understandings, in myriad circumstances, of what welfare maximization requires. In this Article, I contend that this goal is not achievable. Scientific ignorance, cognitive limitations, and normative disagreements yield shifting, incomplete, and contradictory understandings of social welfare in the health sphere. The chaotic state of health care law today reflects this unruliness. In making systemic welfare maximization the lodestar for health law, we risk falling so far short of aspirations for reasoned decision making as to invite disillusion about the possibilities for any sort of rationality in this field. Accordingly, I urge that we define health law's aims more modestly, based on acknowledgment that its rationality is discontinuous across substantive contexts and changeable with time. This concession to human limits, I argue, opens the way to health policy that mediates wisely between our desire for public action to maximize the well being of the many and our intimate wishes to be treated non-instrumentally, as separate ends. I conclude with an effort to identify the goals that health law, so constructed, should pursue and to suggest how a strategy of accommodation among these goals might apply to a variety of legal controversies.


Publication Citation

91 Cal. L. Rev. 247-322 (2003)