Humanism and Health Care

August 25, 2009

Is there a humanist position on health care?

Yes and no. (Don’t you just love lawyers’ responses?)

As my colleague Reba Boyd Wooden points out in her perceptive blog post (see entry for August 19), humanism does not embrace any particular economic doctine or political ideology. Provided basic human rights are respected, humanism is compatible with a market economy with minimal regulation, a market economy with significant regulation, a mixed economy (that is, one with a private sector but also a significant public sector) or even socialism. Humanism, per se, simply does not dictate how large a role the government should play in regulating economic activities. Humanism’s compatibility with a wide range of economic and political positions makes it impossible to say that all humanists are obliged by their principles to adopt a specific position in the current health care debate raging in the U.S. I do not see how anyone could logically claim that humanism entails support for a single payer system, or a system that combines public and private options, or some modification of the current employer-based system of health insurance. 

However, that does not imply that humanists have nothing to contribute to the health care debate. It seems to me some form of universal health care should be supported by humanists. Note that I intentionally use the hedge words "some form" because I do not believe that providing the exact same level of health care to all is mandated by humanist principles — no more than providing the exact same level of housing to all is mandated by humanist principles. What humanists should support is some sort of system that ensures everyone receives at least a decent minimum of health care, just as everyone has a right to basic housing and a basic education.

Those humanists who are libertarians may disagree, but I believe this position is justified both by empirical evidence and humanist values and principles.  With respect to empirical evidence, a number of studies indicate that early treatment of health issues prevents more costly problems later.  As we ultimately bear the costs of others’ serious health problems, at least indirectly, reducing the frequency of these serious health problems is in our own self-interest. 

 But we can and should go beyond conclusions that can be drawn from empirical studies.  Humanists do not share a detailed moral code, but we do have a commitment to certain core values.  Among those is a commitment to the dignity of each individual and, insofar as possible, a commitment to ensuring that everyone can participate and pursue similar opportunities in the life of the community.  What those commitments imply will change with our social conditions.  In 1700 it would have been difficult to make the case that everyone had a right to a basic education or a right to basic health care.  In contemporary Western democracies, however, access to certain social goods, such as education, housing, and health care, is essential. 

People often contrast compassion with reason.  But sometimes a position is supported by both compassion and reason.  I believe that ensuring a basic level of health care for everyone is such a position.