The Cross-Cultural Importance of Satisfying Vital Needs
Alvarez, Allen Andrew A.
Bioethics 2009 November; 23(9): 486-496
Ethical beliefs may vary across cultures but there are things that must be valued as preconditions to any cultural practice. Physical and mental abilities vital to believing, valuing and practising a culture are such preconditions and it is always important to protect them. If one is to practise a distinct culture, she must at least have these basic abilities. Access to basic healthcare is one way to ensure that vital abilities are protected. John Rawls argued that access to all-purpose primary goods must be ensured. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum claim that universal capabilities are what resources are meant to enable. Len Doyal and Ian Gough identify physical health and autonomy as basic needs of every person in every culture. When we disagree on what to prioritize, when resources to satisfy competing demands are scarce, our common needs can provide a point of normative convergence. Need-based rationing, however, has been criticized for being too indeterminate to give guidance for deciding which healthcare services to prioritize and for tending to create a bottomless-pit problem. But there is a difference between needing something (first-order need) and needing to have the ability to need (second-order need). Even if we disagree about which first-order need to prioritize, we must accept the importance of satisfying our second-order need to have the ability to value things. We all have a second-order need for basic healthcare as a means to protect our vital abilities even if we differ in what our cultures consider to be particular first-order needs.
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