Health as a Basic Human Need: Would This Be Enough?

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 40 (2):251-267 (2012)
Abstract
Although the value of health is universally agreed upon, its definition is not. Both the WHO and the UN define health in terms of well-being. They advocate a globally shared responsibility that all of us — states, international organizations, pharmaceutical corporations, civil society, and individuals — bear for the health (that is, the well-being) of the world's population. In this paper I argue that this current well-being conception of health is troublesome. Its problem resides precisely in the fact that the well-being conception of health, as an all-encompassing label, does not properly distinguish between the different realities of health and the different demands of justice, which arise in each case. In addressing responsibilities related to the right to health, we need to work with a more differentiated vocabulary, which can account for these different realities. A crucial distinction to bear in mind, for the purposes of moral deliberation and the crafting of political and legal institutions, is the difference between basic and non-basic health needs. This distinction is crucial because we have presumably more stringent obligations and rights in relation to human needs that are basic, as they justify stronger moral claims, than those grounded on non-basic human needs. It is important to keep this moral distinction in mind because many of the world's problems regarding the right to health relate to basic health needs. By conflating these needs with less essential ones, we risk confusing different types of moral claims and weakening the overall case for establishing duties regarding the right to health. There is, therefore, a practical need to reevaluate the current normative conception of health so that it distinguishes, within the broad scope of well-being, between what is basic and what is not. My aim here is to shed light onto this distinction and to show the need for this differentiation. I do so, first, by providing, on the basis of David Miller's concept of basic needs, an account of basic health needs and, secondly, by mounting a defense of the basic needs approach to the right to health, arguing against James Griffin who opposes the basic needs approach
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