Freedom Is An Opiate

Misha Burnett (an excellent author and thinker) commented on a previous post that something was a medical issue not a civil rights issue. His point is clear, but it set me thinking: are medicine and human rights separate?

On the face of it, they seem to be: medicine seeks to protect or restore people’s health, and is often concrete and applied at the individual level; human rights seek to protect and restore people’s freedom to act without undue interference, and are often aspirational and applied at the group level.

As can be seen in debates over allowing smoking (both in public and at all), where they are both applied at same level, medical issues are often seen as only one factor to balance in considering human rights. This, and other situations where people are permitted to do things that pose a high risk of harm to themselves or others, would suggest that medical issues are inferior to human rights issues.

However, the reverse hierarchy may be closer to the truth. What are human rights other than protection from harmful interference? The right to not be attacked in the street stems from the physical and psychological damage it will cause.

Even those human rights which do not appear to relate to protection from harm reveal a health-supporting aspect if examined closely. For example, equal opportunities legislation improve the employment prospects of certain minorities: on the face of it, not protecting health; but, it reduces the pressure for those minorities to take off-the-books work, bringing them further within those laws which do protect health; and reduces exclusion, reducing the risk of mental illness.

This underpinning of actual impact to human rights issues becomes clear with a thought experiment: could we have the right to breathe solid rock? Not the right to try, but the right to physically do it?

Clearly a law could be passed granting people freedom to breathe rock, but it seems absurd; passing that law would achieve nothing. It would not even protect someone who wanted to breathe rock from the mental stress of not being able to do it.

Before there is a human right, there must be a choice with consequences that affect human mental or physical well-being; and that is a medical issue.


4 thoughts on “Freedom Is An Opiate

    1. Injurious is a complex issue: chemotherapy, surgery, and other processes that treat health issues also cause harm. I would say medical professionals should be allowed to provide treatments where the harm prevented/removed is greater than the harm caused.

      As to who decides that? I am not an expert on all jurisdictions, but in the UK the test of whether someone acted properly is whether a reasonable minority of medical professionals would consider the treatment a legitimate method. While that isn’t perfect, it does allow for unusual treatments without allowing anyone to offer anything without having to provide enough evidence to convince others.

      I support regulation of medicine by the state. Taking a single decision, I could research evidence and make an informed choice. But that would take time, assuming I even have the background to understand the evidence. If that were the only decision and I had the time to learn enough, it might be feasible, but I am likely to be facing more than one at any one time while potentially also facing a tight deadline or degraded faculties due to illness or injury.

      So, I favour losing some freedom over potential treatments in exchange for a centralised system that reduces the burden of researching it myself.


        1. This is why I also support the replacement of human legislators with a Tocquevillian perfect judge: then the rights of the state that can make lives better are not susceptible to our lesser natures.

          Unfortunately, I have yet to find a way of achieving it.


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