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Health as a fundamental right: value or need for society?

8 Dec 2016 15:05 | Matteo Finco
Health is generally considered a fundamental right. The World Health Organization established this right a long time ago, and as such it is included in the constitutions of many countries. However, what if health is primarily a need of modern society, rather than a right based on shared values? What if medicine and everything that has to do with well-being (ie treating and preventing illness and improving living conditions, food security, etc.), finds its origin only in the society, which in order to maintain itself specifically requires a system that takes care of individuals?

This is a hypothesis that could be investigated through seemingly distant, or even incompatible, research areas like system theory and critical theory.

Luhmann’s system theory assumes that the bodies and minds of individuals are not parts or elements of society, but that they belong to its environment. However, they constitute such an important role in the reproduction of society that special social subsystems (such as the medical system that is designed to cure diseases), were formed. If, therefore, health appears as “the only value that can be placed beyond any ideological controversy” (Luhmann, 2015), the reason can be that the system for curing disease is key to ensuring the maintenance and reproduction of society itself: bodies must be cared for, ultimately, to ensure the inclusion of persons, of consciences in communications.

Critical theory, for its part, suggests that health is one of the many areas exploited for economic purposes. For example, health creates consumers, even when life and death are at stake. Health, then, would be a subjectivisation mechanism, creating “subjugated subjects” (Han, 2014), who are materials available for power. Thus, health, medicalization and care for the body are the foci of a “politics of life”, or in the terms of Foucault, biopower. A “governmental rationality” based on a type of entrepreneurial government, would then be at the root of the claims of the right to health.

In this sense, it is possible to make a connection between systems theory’s idea that bodies and minds must be “treated” and “cured” to ensure that they can participate in communication and critical theory’s idea that neoliberalism needs to “manage” the human being, not in a repressive way, but “gently”, to satisfy the inherent logic of society.

The fact that the right to health is usually fully recognized only for those who hold citizenship of a State (who, besides being a body, is also a person), encourages the idea that health is a systemic necessity masked by law in order to submit transparent subjects to their logic.


Han B.-C., Why revolution is no longer possible, «Süddeutsche Zeitung», 02/09/2014; doi: https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/byung-chul-han/why-revolution-is-no-longer-possible.

Luhmann N., Anspruchsinflation im Krankheitssystem. Eine Stellungnahme aus gesellschaftstheoretischer Sicht, in P. Herder-Dorneich, A. Schuller (edited by), Die Anspruchsspirale. Schicksal oder Systemdefekt?, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1984.

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