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On illness, disease, and priority: a framework for more fruitful debates

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The distinction between ‘disease’ and ‘illness’ has played an important role in the debate between naturalism and normativism. Both employ these notions, yet disagree on whether to assign priority to ‘disease’ or ‘illness’. I argue that this discussion suffers from implicit differences in the underlying interpretations: While for naturalists the distinction between ‘disease’ and ‘illness’ is one between a descriptive and a prescriptive notion, for normativists it is one between cause and effect. This discrepancy is connected to different interpretations of priority, which also tend to be conflated in the debate. I disambiguate these different usages and develop a distinction between ‘disease’ and ‘illness’ that is theoretically neutral with regard to naturalism or normativism. Moreover, I propose a concept of heuristic priority that could serve as a common focus. This framework can avoid common confusions by providing a shared terminology and thereby help to make debates on disease-concepts more fruitful.

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  1. I will use ‘ailment’ as an umbrella-term for ‘illness’ and ‘disease’; cf. “A two-level distinction of ailments” for further elaboration.

  2. By contrast, Wakefield (1992) employs an etiological, evolutionary notion of function in his hybrid account of mental disorder as harmful dysfunction. It is, however, equally debatable whether he thereby achieves his aim to make ‘dysfunction’ a value-free notion (cf., e.g., Lilienfeld and Marino 1995). Wakefield does not use the notions of ‘disease’ and ‘illness’; however, his distinction between a dysfunction and its harmful consequences might be interpreted to mirror the distinction between ‘disease’ and ‘illness’ in both regards (i.e., as distinguishing a cause from its effects as well as a descriptive and normative part). Yet, since Wakefield does not make this explicit, I will not discuss his account in detail here.

  3. Later, he modified his position and claimed ‘illness’ to be purely descriptive, too, given when “pathological processes rise to a systemic level that produces global incapacitation of the whole organism” (Boorse 1987, p. 365). I will adhere to his earlier distinction, as this has played a shaping role in the debate. Also, Boorse’s redefinition does not deny the existence of a normative level of medical ailments, but rather renames it with terms such as therapeutic normality. Moreover, I find it highly doubtful whether it is possible to define “systemic incapacitation” in a way that does not rely on evaluations of the severity of suffering or the importance of abilities (and Boorse does not elaborate any argument that it could).

  4. Logical priority (i.e., considering a to be a necessary condition for b) is thus a particularly strong version of conceptual priority (presuming a in the definition of b); cf. also “A two-level distinction of ailments”.

  5. Note that this does not imply, neither for Boorse nor logically, that such conditions do not merit any therapeutic or medical help (even if it might in practice impact questions of medical and social treatment).

  6. This does not mean that there cannot be any descriptive aspects in ascribing (ill) health. As Nordenfelt puts it, the standard to be set is at least partly normative; but judgements made on whether a normative standard is achieved can be descriptive (Nordenfelt 1987, 80; 2001; 103ff.). Yet, if the notions of illness and disease are defined with regard to a normative standard, they are certainly not value-free. However, this does not make respective ascriptions of health or disease arbitrary. For Nordenfelt, vital goals are somewhat relative to individual human beings. Schramme (2007) criticises that this would lead to counterintuitive judgements if one’s vital goals are either too ambitious or too moderate: If I aim to be a top athlete, I may very well be ill all my life; if I just aim to be able to scratch my nose, I could stay healthy for a long time. I cannot discuss this in detail, but Nordenfelt’s conception is not one in which what is a vital goal is a completely open choice. Vital goals are required to contribute to a person’s long-term, real happiness; this requirement is intended to rule out counterproductive and trivial goals (cf. Nordenfelt 1987, 90ff.).

  7. This definition of ‘disease’ (types) as typically causing ‘illness’ (tokens) leaves the former concept somewhat underdetermined, as it does not specify what kind of internal state or process typically interfere with one’s ability to achieve the vital goals. Here, Nordenfelt’s account could perhaps be complemented by an account of dysfunction.

  8. Moreover, what conditions can be considered as having a real potential for medical help is contingent on the state of knowledge as well as broader societal context. Cooper (2002) makes the important point that a future medical treatment need not only be possible in a technical sense, but also with regard to social acceptability. The class of medical conditions will therefore not necessarily grow bigger and bigger as medical science progresses, as not everything that can be done should be done.

  9. The term “level” here is not to be understood as implying a hierarchical relation.


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I want to thank Sean Valles for providing helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper, as well as Najko Jahn and Alfons Bueter for their support and inspiration.

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Correspondence to Anke Bueter.

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Bueter, A. On illness, disease, and priority: a framework for more fruitful debates. Med Health Care and Philos 22, 463–474 (2019).

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