Bioethics Blogs

War Metaphors in Health Care: What Are They Good For?

by Kayhan Parsi, JD PhD

Protest singer Edwin Starr powerfully asked in the early 1970s: “War, what is it good for?” Apparently, it’s good enough to use in a variety of metaphorical turns of phrase. The war on poverty. The war on cancer. The war on Alzheimer’s. The war on drugs. The war metaphor seems irresistible. How else to elevate a social problem and make it the object of our intense focus and attention, not to mention financial support? These metaphors figure prominently in many areas of public life. Take policing. As scholars Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler have stated about the use of military metaphors in policing: “The ideological filter encased within the war metaphor is ‘militarism,’ defined as a set of beliefs and values that stress the use of force and domination as appropriate means to solve problems and gain political power”. Similarly, health care is replete with militaristic metaphors. Cancer garners the most intensely militaristic metaphors. We often say that someone lost their battle with cancer. Yet cancer is not alone. As Nie and colleagues argue in this month’s target article, such militaristic metaphors are commonly found in the world of HIV cure and research. Why do we continue to use such militaristic metaphors in health care?

Thinking and speaking in metaphors is such a part of being human that it’s almost unremarkable to us. Philosopher Mark Johnson and linguist George Lakoff have made significant contributions in our understanding of how metaphorical thinking shapes our morality and our moral understanding has persuasively argued that we think imaginatively about our moral problems and that our thinking is inevitably metaphorical.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.