Individual responsibility for health

Deciding how to distribute health care costs may include looking backwards at what behaviours have contributed to a condition (eg tattoo removal may not be publicly funded, but removal of a disfiguring skin lesion where suffering is equivalent is), or may look forward to how behaviour might affect the effectiveness of a treatment (eg liver transplant with continued alcohol excess).  Sometimes looking forward and looking backwards have the same outcome, but not necessarily.

There are a number of arguments against these attitudes:

  • Humanitarian – a patient’s suffering should be addressed, regardless of the circumstances
  • Libertarian – denying treatment is likely to lead to even worse consequences, with eventual loss of political and civic participation (which is a societal good, as per JS Mill)
  • Fairness – although certain behaviour may increase the risk of a negative health outcome, other factors also play a role which are outside individual control, and rarely straightforward to establish causality.
  • Practical – if a doctor makes decisions based on behaviour, it encourages intrusiveness on their part, and defensiveness on the patient’s part, both impact on doctor-patient relationship
  • Moralistic – who decides which behaviours are acceptable and which not? Rarely non-judgmental

The liberal egalitarian response is to hold individuals responsible for their choice, but not for the consequences of their choice.  The egalitarian view is that everyone should have equal opportunities, regardles of their natural or social advantages/disadvantages at birth.  Of course, it can often be debated whether “choice” is ever truly distinct and independent of circumstance!  The liberal view is that there should be no formal or informal barriers (although not necessarily compensation for the disadvantaged).

So it would be appropriate to tax smokers an amount related to the increased health costs of smoking.  It would not be fair to tax some smokers more than others, even if the costs of their treatment might be more – it is the choice that matters.  This avoids all the objections above, apart from the moralistic one: but at least decisions on lifestyle taxes are made democratically, not by health care providers.

Does not solve the problem of whether behaviours can truly be considered a choice, when they are often predictable based on socio-economic factors.  Plus, not all types of behaviour can be taxed – physical inactivity?  Poor health care seeking behaviour?  Unsafe sex?

Cappelen and Norheim, J Med Ethics 2005;31:476–480. doi: 10.1136/jme.2004.010421