Is Being ‘Free from Diseases’ a Misnomer ?


On May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially declared the world free of small pox. At the time, it was seen as the achievement of a truly great feat, a beacon of the marvel that persisted in science, and a viable proof of its ability to sustain humanity. However, let’s draw our attention to the phraseology- did the eradication of small pox involve guaranteeing additional freedom to human beings? Or is it just a corrupted usage of the term?

Using words out of context is something that we all do quite often, for instance using the phrase ‘light-years’ as a unit of time rather than what it truly is- a unit of distance. A similar principle could be applied to the common usage of the phrase ‘being free from diseases’. After all, in it’s true sense, the absence of diseases does not provide us with more liberty or freedom as far as its philosophical essence is concerned. Or does it?

Isiah Berlin defines the fundamental sense of freedom as “freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense, or else metaphor”. If we strictly go by Berlin’s definition of what entails a sense of freedom, the usage of this phrase would either be metaphorical, which would mean on some level it is a misnomer, or an extension of the sense of freedom. At the same time, it must be remembered that liberty and freedom are conjoined with the idea of autonomy, of being able to choose the way we want to be and act, as long as it doesn’t infringe someone else’s rights or well-being. That is, we want to live a life on our own terms, free of enslavement or incarceration because this deprives us of autonomy. Consider then, a simple question- given the choice, would you rather be an individual with cholera or without cholera?

It must be kept in mind that the largely philosophical concept of freedom is rather abstract, and when reduced to a basic form of understanding, necessarily consists of two aspects- well-being and agency. In fact, in his paper on freedom, Amartya Sen gives a significant focus on this idea of freedom, and how it is related to maladies. He argues with these two parameters of freedom in mind. When freedom is seen as only that which provides us with maximum alternatives, the essence of freedom in ‘being free’ from diseases seems nonsensical. This is because in a situation where a person lives in a country which is ‘free’ of cholera, he cannot have cholera even if he wants to. Except this would be a rather simplistic application of the concept of freedom. This brings us back to the earlier question- would anybody choose to suffer from cholera even if they had this choice? It is here that Sen cites the idea of ‘counterfactual choice’- had anybody been given the choice between having a malady or not having it, he/she would always prefer not to have it. It is in this sense that the idea of being ‘free’ from maladies becomes far from a misnomer.

Expounding on the essential broadness in the idea of freedom, Sen himself takes aid of Berlin by defining freedom as ‘a man’s or a people’s liberty to choose live as they desire’, something that is less related to a control mechanism, but rather more closely linked with how one would want their life to be. In this context, we can have two ways of exercising freedom. We exercise our freedom either directly, or it is maximized in some way by external authorities like social institutions or the government. Thus, it does not matter essentially whether or not we are directly given the choice of having a disease or not having one. Upon taking a closer look, it becomes evident that the World Health Organisation, is giving us effective freedom from small pox because we would never choose to have it in the first place.

All of us cherish life in a particular way- preferably with minimum susceptibility of diseases, lower chances of mortality, a certified degree of safety, the possibility of sustaining a livelihood, and so on. In this respect, all of these preferences are freedoms we want for ourselves, and being able to exercise the freedom to a life without dangerous and unfortunate diseases has been always one of the most important.

– Contributed by Tinka

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