Lately, it has become trendy to refer to healthcare as a basic human right. After all, the idea of keeping people from getting sick and/or dying is appealing to just about everybody. Proponents of this ideology will often begin their argument by appealing to the assumed right to life and conclude that without healthcare people will die, thus, the right to life implies a right to healthcare.
In these types of discussions, the term “rights” is constantly inflated beyond its correct and meaningful definition. Individuals use the word “right” to describe good things to which they feel entitled. Education has moved from merely being beneficial to being a right. Universal basic income has moved from being a worthy goal to being a right. Describing these various items as rights implies, not only that they are important and beneficial, but that all human beings are entitled to them and society is responsible to provide them. Despite sounding good initially, however, this line of reasoning has a few problems that I hope to expose in the remainder of this post.
What is the Right to Life?
Most people affirm the right to life. The United States government, for example, was founded on the assumption that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Notice that these rights are given by God and preclude any rights that may be granted by government. These types of rights are often called natural rights because they exist regardless of government degree or societal custom. Professor James Sadowsky describes this concept of rights, “When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof.”
Being consistent with Sadowsky’s definition, I would argue that these natural rights are negative rights (dictate inaction) and not positive rights (dictate action). This means that individuals are prohibited from interfering with the rights of others, but not obligated to act to maintain the rights of others. For example, many would consider the right to property to be a natural right. While this view would hold that an individual may not steal another’s house, it would not hold that an individual must give up his/her property to provide a house for another.
Implications of Positive Rights
As alluded to earlier, natural rights cannot be positive rights without being self-contradictory. How can it be said, for example, that an individual has a meaningful right to property if this individual is compelled to relinquish his/her property in order to satisfy the positive right to property of another? To call the right to property a positive right would be contradictory because obligating a person to maintain the property right’s of another would simultaneously violate the property rights of the initial individual. Similarly, how can it be said that an individual has a meaningful right to life and liberty if this individual is compelled to live as a slave in order to maintain the positive right to life of another? A thing cannot be a natural right if it involves violating the natural rights of another.
Morals and Rights
Therefore, I consider the right to life to be a negative right and not a positive right. While this view obligates individuals to not kill others, it does not obligate individuals to keep others alive. For coercing one individual to medically operate on another would be a form of slavery, and a clear violation of individual rights to life and liberty. Is one person’s right to life more important than that of another? Can the slavery of one individual be justified as being for the benefit of another? This is a dangerous road down which to travel.
I do want to be clear that, when discussing these rights, I am referring to what rights should be legally enforced, not what behavior should be considered morally “right.” As Sadowsky notes, “We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use.” So while I would say that it is often moral for an individual to keep another alive, I would not say that the initial person should be forced to perform lifesaving action at gunpoint.1
Economist Murray Rothbard explains the distinction between a right and the moral use of a right:
“We will contend that it is a man’s right to do whatever he wishes with his person; it is his right not to be molested or interfered with by violence from exercising that right. But what may be the moral or immoral ways of exercising that right is a question of personal ethics rather than of political philosophy — which is concerned solely with matters of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations.”
Thus, in the context of healthcare, one might be able to argue that it is immoral for a doctor to fail to perform life-saving care for a patient. However, the immoral utilization of this doctor’s right to life and liberty does not nullify these rights and therefore justify others violating these rights by forcing the doctor to act a certain way.
Healthcare as a Right
In the context of healthcare, then, it cannot be said that individuals have a right to healthcare. Although I am far from an expert on the healthcare industry, it is clear that the provision of healthcare takes a significant amount of labor from numerous individuals. Therefore, to force individuals to perform medical procedures and provide medical supplies without adequate compensation is a form of slavery that violates the rights of these medical professionals.
Should providing healthcare be a goal of society? Of course, it should. Do not interpret this post as an argument against all forms of healthcare provision, especially for those who cannot afford it. In particular voluntary, charitable contributions can provide significant monetary care for less fortunate individuals, without utilizing coercion or enslavement.
As always, pragmatism and emotional arguments should not be used as excuses to violate individual rights. The ends do not justify the means and even worthy goals such as healthcare provision should not be manipulated to allow for infringement on individual rights.
- Additionally, it should be noted that, although these life and death situations might be popular discussion points for pro-universal healthcare advocates, many covered healthcare procedures are not clear life-saving operations. Therefore, I am conceding a considerable level of argumentational leverage by even discussing the right to healthcare in the context of the right to life.