The Irrelevance of Harm for a Theory of Disease

Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 45 (3):332-349 (2020)
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Normativism holds that there is a close conceptual link between disease and disvalue. We challenge normativism by advancing an argument against a popular normativist theory, Jerome Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction account. Wakefield maintains that medical disorders are breakdowns in evolved mechanisms that cause significant harm to the organism. We argue that Wakefield’s account is not a promising way to distinguish between disease and health because being harmful is neither necessary nor sufficient for a dysfunction to be a disorder. Counterexamples to the harmful dysfunction account are considered, such as mild infections, perceptual deficits, and beneficial illnesses. Then we consider two ways of amending the harmful dysfunction account to address these cases and argue that the proposed amendments raise even more serious problems for this account. These problems apply generally to any normativist theory and raise doubts about the entire normative approach to the philosophy of health and disease.



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James Taylor
The College of New Jersey

References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability.Elizabeth Barnes - 2016 - Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Welfare and Rational Care.Stephen Darwall - 2002 - Princeton University Press.
A Theory of the Good and the Right.Richard B. Brandt - 1979 - Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 35 (2):307-310.

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