Is Healthcare a Human Right?

“Healthcare is a human right.” The chances are, if you’re left-leaning, you probably agree with that statement. If you work for the World Health Organization, or helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you probably agree with it too.

The UDHR states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including… medical care.” The WHO interpret this document as a “legal obligation on states to ensure access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality.”

In practice, as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are keen to tell us, this means that government has a duty to provide healthcare or insurance coverage for all, paid for through taxation. It is a human right, after all.

If we are to justify something as a human right, it would help to first explain what rights actually are. Where do they come from? On what foundations are they based?

If we follow the logic of the UDHR, our rights come from government. A human right is a “legal obligation on states”; a government decree; a permission or provision granted by law.

However, this conception of rights is undermined by the exercise of national sovereignty. The US Constitution does not guarantee healthcare as a human right, but there are people who nonetheless believe it should. This itself proves that rights do not come from government, but from a conception of rights external to the state. The government can certainly protect our rights, or enforce those provisions we consider so, but it is not the source of our rights.

Rights are a moral concept, and we each derive them from our chosen systems of morality. Modern progressives often cite “compassion” as their mode of morality, and it is a noble ethic, for sure. Again, though, we encounter the same problem. The Islamic klepto-theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran regularly murder homosexuals, people those states deem to have forfeited their right to life, using fundamentalist Sharia law to justify it. Why should we consider that system of morality of lesser virtue than compassion?

It seems to me that such subjective personal or religious foundations for rights are not viable ones, not least if we wish to present one as justification for policies that will affect those around us. Legislative permissions and provisions being of a fleeting nature in our democracy and a world of competing ideologies, our rights are neither truly protected nor absolute if we establish them in an epistemological framework of relativism.

Given this, is there an objective standard of morality and rights on which we can depend? What are the rights we can rationally claim as universal? Is the provision of medical care one of those rights, and if not, why not?

I believe the answers to the questions are best answered by the philosophy of Objectivism, a system of rational morality developed by Russo-American writer and libertarian hero, Ayn Rand. Objectivism posits that the proper moral purpose of human life can be deduced logically; that is, to quote Rand herself, “that existence exists”, and that human existence functions upon a set of axioms – self-evident truths – whose morality – and so, application to rights – derives from their essential relation to existence itself.

It would take an entire book to fully explain Objectivist theories; fortunately, Ayn Rand wrote one, and you can buy it here. I wish simply to present the absolute essentials of this code of ethics, and explain how it applies to a proper and logically consistent understanding of rights. There are better summaries out there – longer and deeper (size matters) – and I urge you to research them.

Rand’s theory of objective morality derives from the essential nature of values themselves. For Rand, a “value” was much more than an assessment of worth; it was instead something all living things “act to gain and keep”. All living things take self-generated, goal-directed action to satisfy their needs. At a basic level, this process of action-in-pursuit is fundamental to life, because failure to pursue that which a living entity values – food, water, warmth, etc – means death.

Based on this self-evident observation, Rand posited that life was conditional on specific courses of action; life itself was an entity’s ultimate standard of value, and the process of accrual – to value something and strive towards its attainment – was necessarily determined by that entity’s existential need to satisfy the conditions of its own life. Again, this is a self-evident fact of biological survival.

Whilst mankind is bound to these incontrovertible realities, we are nonetheless more complex beings than animals or plants. Whilst plants and animals survive through photosynthetic and instinctive processes respectively, humans act volitionally – by choosing to use our minds to identify and pursue our values. Because our brains are capable of abstraction and we command our will through self-consciousness, we are free to choose our own values. These can be life-serving values or not. We can choose to be self-destructive or not. In either case, one thing remains absolute: every individual must necessarily pursue the values that would sustain their life to sustain their life, and humans do so through a process of independent deductive reasoning.

In simple terms, to live – that is, to satisfy our needs – we must be able to think and act based on our own judgement.

Thus, our continued survival as individuals’ rests upon our ability to apply reason to the information available to us. This is why we tell children not to touch the stove, and why those who don’t listen seldom touch it twice. The exercise of reason – self-determination – is our most fundamental means of operating in the world. Self-determination is the identification and pursuit of our values, an action without which we cease to exist.

Human life is deemed such by an individual’s ability to turn will into action, and this constitutes one’s moral purpose. As such, the only thing that can stop a person from acting on their judgement with the faculties available to them is physical force. This denial of moral purpose must therefore necessarily be considered immoral, no matter the intensity or the source – be that another person, a group, or the government itself.

Moral purpose derives from the proper conduct necessary to sustain one’s life – the pursuit of values. And rights are fundamentally a moral conception; as writes Rand, they provide “a logical transition from the principles guiding actions to the principles guiding relationships – [they] preserve and protect individual morality in a social context.” Thus, “individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.”

Moral law is self-determination.

Life, Liberty, and Property. These are the Objective Rights of mankind. Life (existence) is the absolute standard of value, without which all other values cannot exist. Liberty (self-determination) is the process through which we turn will into action to sustain our life. Property is a little more contentious in some circles, so let me repackage it – that which one has acted or laboured legitimately to gain and to keep.

Here’s where universal healthcare comes in. Objectively-derived moral principles (“human rights”) are a sanction to action and a legal protection from physical force. They are not a sanction to be given goods or services. Unlike self-determination, which only requires non-intervention from external parties, the “right” to be given food, clothing, shelter, education, or medical care implies that other people must be forced to produce or provide these things, or to have that which they have acted to gain (their property) taken from them by force.

Each individual is morally an end in herself, not a means to the ends of others. Rights, as both a moral and legal concept, should therefore preserve the sanctity of the individual for all the reasons set out above. You have a right to act in pursuit of medical care if it is of value to you; you do not have a right to be given it at another’s expense. Universal healthcare is not a human right in any objective sense of the term – it is a

political policy, a privilege granted to you by the state. It should be considered such, and should be justified on its merits as method of provision.

In closing, I wish first to say that whatever level of distaste you may feel for Rand’s Objectivist principles, they remain demonstrably true. I do understand, though, that these ideas do not immediate present any solutions to the suffering and poverty in our society. But there are solutions, objectively moral and subjectively compassionate, that I can offer. I attach a contact link below. I hope to hear from anyone interested to know more about Ayn Rand and Libertarianism. Or, if you think I’m an idiot, feel free to comment below. It is your human right, after all.


Harley Dalton

Aberystwyth Young Libertarians

Contact me via Aberystwyth Young Libertarians or Young Libertarians UK