The harmful-dysfunction account of disorder, individual versus social values, and the interpersonal variability of harm challenge

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 24 (3):453-467 (2021)
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This paper presents the interpersonal variability of harm challenge to Jerome Wakefield’s harmful-dysfunction account (HDA) of disorder. This challenge stems from the seeming fact that what promotes well-being or is harmful to someone varies much more across individuals than what is intuitively healthy or disordered. This makes it at least prima facie difficult to see how judgments about health and disorder could, as harm-requiring accounts of disorder like the HDA maintain, be based on, or closely linked to, judgments about well-being and harm. This interpersonal variability of harm challenge is made salient by the difficulty faced by harm-requiring accounts of disorder in dealing satisfactorily with cases of intuitively disordered conditions that seem harmless because they do not deprive the individuals that they affect of anything that they value (e.g., desired infertility). I argue that this challenge is made more serious for the HDA by some clarifications Wakefield has recently made on harm. In recent publications, Wakefield dissociates himself from the sheer cultural-relativist view of harm attributed to him by some critics based on his linkage of harm to social values, and adopts a more qualified social-values-based view of harm that leaves room for criticism of the values endorsed by members of a cultural group at a given time. I show how Wakefield’s qualified view makes it more difficult for the HDA to deal with the interpersonal variability of harm challenge, at least when applied to a Western cultural context where a high value is placed on autonomy and individual choice.



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Antoine C. Dussault
Centre Interuniversitaire De Recherche Sur La Science Et La Technologie (CIRST)

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