The Hypothetical Imperative: Prevention of Suffering in a Sane Society


August 12, 2009 by Gsmith

Salvador Dali - Atomicus

Salvador Dali - Atomicus

Does every human being have the right to equal access to health care? The only way one might answer this question is to generalize it as an argument for an obligation to prevent suffering and preserve health, when the preservation and prevention of the same does not endanger the health or well-being of another.

Kant would have called an obligation to preserve health a hypothetical imperative. If a person is drowning, would you take the time to throw him a rope and pull him to shore? If not, why not?

A common argument among religious types is the permissible but not obligatory option. Sure, they assert, it’s great to love your neighbor, but no one should be forced to do so. This argument ignores important aspects of the fundamental question. Either our society has a duty to help people regain health and prevent suffering, or it has a duty not to do so. The choice seems obvious. If we do not have an obligation to prevent human misery and death, what obligations do we have, exactly? Leaving such an imperative to some charitable impulse seems not only ridiculous but counterproductive in context.

I find it difficult to argue for the right to something that is not absolutely necessary. A backyard barbeque grill is nice, but not absolutely necessary. Neither is a backyard. Reasonable prevention and treatment of disease and suffering is a necessity, in my opinion, both to the individual and to society as a whole.



5 thoughts on “The Hypothetical Imperative: Prevention of Suffering in a Sane Society

  1. Joseph says:

    Love the Salvador Dali picture.

    Anyway, more to the point, I think this post says what has been in my mind, but I have been unable to put it into words. A society that allows people to starve or go without medical help is not sane. It’s nice to think of a charitable impulse by someone with means coming along and voluntarily helping, but that often does not happen. To force people to watch those around them starve or go without medical help while they themselves don’t have the means to help, because society has decided, strangely, that such help is “paternalistic” and “immoral,” it seems to me would create an extreme feeling of alienation would cause everyone to become desensitized. To further indoctrinate everyone into thinking that society should not help people, and that letting people starve and go without medical help because that’s what makes us free, well, I see that leading to a population that can be controlled by a few individuals who become more tyrannical than any “paternalistic” society that might be willing to help its poor and prevent those feelings of alienation I mentioned before. I’m just an amateur at this, though. And I do distinguish things like food and medical help from, say, televisions or Gregoire’s example of a back yard (though some space might in fact be a necessity).

  2. Joseph says:

    Sorry for the terrible grammar and typos in the last post. It’s late.

  3. Forest Simmons says:

    I like this because it bypasses the quibbles over “rights,” and goes directly to the needs and duties.

    Whether or not health care is a “right,” it definitely is a need, so the question becomes whose duty is it to see that the need is met?

    Are we to suppose that the disabled have the exclusive duty of providing for their own health care?


    Does society have a duty to make sure that somebody makes a profit off of health care, education, war, etc.?

    No, but that is what “right” to profit has come to mean in corporate capitalism. Isn’t that the basic idea of cost plus accounting in military contracts is about? Isn’t that what “too big to fail” really means?

  4. Ron Madson says:

    Well said and argued! So once I accept in my value system the moral imperative to help the sick, suffering and dying then the only question is “how best to achieve that end.” To ignore that moral imperative is to say my abstract right to demonstrate my independence is a greater moral imperative then relieving of human suffering which I have the ability to solve—but damnit I will not to prove my point–“you can’t make me.” Well done and said Gregoire…

  5. all things considered (fine post, fine comments) I think this comes down to simple disagreement. I understand where the author and commentators are coming from, and I am convinced that I am understood by them. Yet we simply disagree. It has been and continues to be an enlightening thought process.

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