Opinion Public Health

Is health a moral responsibility?

“The preservation of health is a duty. Few seem conscious that there is such a thing as physical morality.”
Henry Spencer (1)

We are in charge of our lives. We choose what job we go into, what friends we invite, what clothes we wear and what food we eat. This is what we tell ourselves every morning as we drag ourselves out of bed, every night when we gaze up at our ceilings and think back on our day with pride. After all, if we were mere puppets on a string, what would be the point of it all?

For the past few decades more and more money has been pumped into public health campaigns (1). Our health is not based solely on our wealth, our family or our doctor, but upon the choices we make, and public health campaigns aim to nudge our choices in healthier directions.

Knowing that we are responsible our health, how does it feel to have such a responsibility? How do we react to this immense control that we hold in our hands; this ability to decide how many years we will live, how quickly we will age – the knowledge that the health choices we make today may well have an impact five years down the line? And how much responsibility do we really have for our own actions, considering all of the external forces acting on us, many of which are acting at a subconscious level?

To illustrate my point, allow me start with an example. If I knew I was going to die of lung cancer in twenty years if I continued to smoke, would I be encouraged to give it up? This simple question illustrates how very complex our lives really are. Giving up a habit – whether it is smoking tobacco or eating fast food – is rarely simple. Some of us may well choose to place the responsibility upon the smoker, but such a simplification masks the more intricate webs of that person’s life: what made them start in the first place, what made them continue and where does their motivation now lie? Are they smoking as a way to escape their feelings? To chase after a certain persona? If we place responsibility at the person’s feet, then we ignore the more subconscious desires that have led them towards their supposedly autonomous choices. We all engage in risky behaviours to some degree. A quick glance at the past few days will highlight many ‘unhealthy’ decisions that we have all made on the spur of the moment. Are we to blame for our decisions?

The idea of being in charge of our health has become particularly popular in the mainstream media. A quick Google search will uncover articles on how to build the perfect body, ten-minute guides to eating more fruit and vegetables and quick tips to help us lead more healthy lives (2). Even closer to healthcare, the idea of patient-centeredness has become almost an ideology within healthcare circles; words that are repeated ad infinitum to both students and professionals. This idea of being responsible for our own bodies illustrates our desire to place the power to determine our health back into our own hands, as opposed to relying wholly on the modern medical apparatus to do everything for us.

The numbers back this up even more. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that lifestyle-related diseases accounted for 86% of deaths and 77% of disease burden within the WHO European Region. This includes diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory problems and mental illnesses (3). Furthermore, leading geneticists have pointed out that the “current increase in obesity has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with how we live” (4). These statistics are further supported by the fact that prevention is far more cost-effective than any intervention that healthcare professionals can undertake; from health education within our schools to exercise regimens into our forties – these are the most impactful activities we can do to positively impact our health. And because these are activities that we choose to participate in, it follows that we are sitting in the pilot seat; we have the power to get off our sofas and put on those Lycra shorts.

So what would it mean if we believed that we are all 100% responsible for our bodies? On one end of the spectrum, it may encourage people to lead more healthy lives – to perhaps avoid that drive to McDonald’s on the way home, or to insist on an early morning run despite the rain pattering on the window outside. But at the other end of the spectrum you have those people who have simply stumbled down the black hole of unhealthy lifestyle, whether it is drugs, fast food or a sedentary lifestyle. And the more we push for a culture of individual responsibility, the more needless blame we may place upon those who ultimately need help and not judgment. Do you think you would treat a person differently if you believed their illness was entirely their choice?

By placing responsibility on individuals, we walk down the road of assuming that to be ill is to be guilty, thereby further stigmatizing the unwell. A good example of this is mental illness, which has a long history of blame ranging from the relationship with the mother to the relationships within an entire family, until eventually we decided to fall back upon neurobiological theories in an attempt to absolve people of blame altogether.

As human beings, we are creatures of habit; as much as we would like to believe that becoming healthy is as simple as creating a New Year’s Resolution, half of all individuals who begin an exercise regimen quit within six months (4). The environment in which we grow up as children has a profound influence upon our behaviours. The habits we learn from our parents and those closest to us, whether they be about smoking, exercise or eating unhealthily, can stay with us subconsciously (3). When we decide to stay at home and watch another episode of Game of Thrones rather than go out for a run, how much of that decision was ours? How much control do we have over our personalities, whether they be impulsive or habitual?

Health is more than just a decision. It lies at the center of many threads: genetic, environmental, social and psychological. Although we live in a world where six of the ten leading factors contributing to the burden of disease are lifestyle related (5), we must appreciate the fact that these are indeed factors, not a solid line that we can draw across other peoples’ lives to claim that they are wholly responsible for what happens to their bodies and mind.

So what do we do about these opposing forces acting on us? On one end of the spectrum lies the idea that we have a dictatorial control over and responsibility for our decisions, while on the other end there lies the more deterministic way of viewing things, where ‘whatever happens, happens – I can’t do anything to change it’ is the prevailing belief. Which one is right? Which one should we accept?

The answer, I believe, lies not within abstract philosophical questions about morality and free will. Rather, I believe the answer is different for each and every one of us. It is up to us to decide how we view our bodies, our minds and the world in which we live. Do we want to live healthily? Why? Are we doing it for ourselves? To be able to fit into our new wedding dress? To allow our children to live in a smoke-free house? We all have our own reasons for the choices we make, and no doctor can make these decisions for us. Instead, we need to take a step back and think about what is most important in our lives, and do what we can to realize our goals with that in mind.

“Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. [..] That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
Viktor Frankl (6)


  1. The Lancet. Is health a moral responsibility? The Lancet; 1996. 347:1197
  2. Cappelen, A.W., Norheim, O.F. Responsibility in health care: a liberal egalitarian approach. Journal of Medical Ethics; 2005. 31:476-480
  3. Brown, R.C.H. Moral responsibility for (un)healthy behaviour. Journal of Medical Ethics; 2012. 10.1136
  4. Minkler, M. Personal Responsibility for Health? A Review of the Arguments and the Evidence at Century’s End. Health Education & Behaviour; 1999. 26:121-141
  5. Resnik, D.B. Responsibility for health: personal, social, and environmental. Journal of Medical Ethics; 2007. 33:444-445
  6. Frankl, V. Man’s search for meaning: the classic tribute to hope form the holocaust; 2013. Ebury Digital.

Featured image:
L0070041 Public Health Centre by Wellcome Images

By Gunjan Sharma

GS is a medical student at Cardiff University. She has an interest in Global Mental Health, Medical Humanities, Anthropology and the link between Healthcare and Philosophy (for example, the link between moral responsibility and psychopathy). She is particularly interested in a career in Forensic Psychiatry, and the role of mental disorders as symptoms of society.

In her spare time, GS is an avid reader with a to-read list of over four hundred books long. She reads a wide-range of genres, from Fantasy to non-fiction. She is a strong believer in the spoken word and has an odd habit of memorising poems.

Prizes: Prizewinner of the 2014 Careif Suicide Prevention Essay Competition.
Joint Prizewinner of the 2016 Medical Student Essay Prize of the Forensic Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Prizewinner of the 2016 Medical Student Essay Prize of the Spirituality Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists

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