Health as a moral obligation

Student thesis: Master thesis (including HD thesis)

  • Tinne Bekhøi Uldahl
4. term, Applied Philosophy, Master (Master Programme)
Based on Kant's moral philosophy and the categoric imperative, I want to give my bid on a deontological approach to one of the current debates in society. Due to health being a social norm in our society we have come to expect a certain duty to maintain healthy lifestyle as well as a responsibility regarding lifestyle diseases. The purpose of this paper is to try and answer the following question: Is it possible to defend the human right to sickness from a deontological perspective, and how do concepts such as responsibility and freedom connect to this perspective?

Kant's deontology takes its beginning in his theory of reason and the free will, as being an objective source of universal laws for all human beings. By eliminating all subjectivity and empirical perception from the ethics he reaches the categorical imperative and thus a principle of the moral law itself.

As an introduction to my problem, I use the article “The right to be ill”, written by J. Halasz. Halasz writes about the right to be ill without losing one’s value as a human being and a person. Halasz writes his article according to an understanding of the value of man as being absolute and equal, and that sickness, disability or old age cannot change the value of a person as a human being. From this point of view, no one with diseases or illness should be judged or discriminated against, even when that disease is caused by one's way of life. Kant shares this point of view and takes it further with his second formulation of the categorical imperative, which claims that you should never act in a way that treats yourself or other people solely as a means, but also as an end. According to Kant, all human beings are reasonable beings which mean they have a free will which is inviolable.
In order to give a nuanced idea of the current health debate, in which I have mainly been focusing on lifestyle diseases associated with smoking and (severe) overweight, I have included relevant statistics showing the magnitude of the problem from a socio-economic, but also sociological point of view. Lifestyle diseases shows a statistical links with the part of society which include the socially disadvantaged and the low educated. Therefore, one of the arguments in the debate is that society should help these people away from an unhealthy lifestyle, as they just need help and not criticism. A different understanding, however, is that these people must be stopped in their unhealthy lifestyles because they cost society too much if they continue down this path. There are different opinions in case on who is responsible and who should be doing something.

If we look at the debate from a deontological approach, we will soon find it difficult to place responsibility on the society. The state's end of means, by prevention tactics or legal bans, will be healthy, working and low-cost citizens. In other words, citizens become a means to a well-functioning welfare state, more than they become the end them self. Information, guidance and training can be used to provide citizens with better conditions for choosing a healthier lifestyle. On the other hand, deontology cannot justify the use of strategies such as scare campaigns, discrimination or legal bans. This type of manipulation and control of human beings cannot be justified, as it is contradictory in terms of the autonomy of the will.

From the individual’s point of view, it is self-destructive to exert an unhealthy or directly harmful lifestyle, but health is not an absolute concept, it is subjective. Health can therefore serve as a means of humanity as one's absolute goal, but it can never be an end by itself. Self-damaging behavior is morally wrong because wanting to hurt yourself is incompatible with the self-preservation. If, for example, we recognize smoking as being self-damaging behavior, that means we can deduce that smoking is morally wrong. But there is no moral gain by not smoking if you choose not to smoke because you do not want cancer, cannot afford or just never wanted to give it a try. Only those who act morally because they have an objective obligation to do so, can be said to act in accordance with the moral law, as prescribed by the ethics of duty.
Publication date3 Jun 2019
Number of pages53
ID: 305020617