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Med Health Care Philos. 2007 Mar;10(1):19-27; discussion 29-32.

An agenda for future debate on concepts of health and disease.

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  • 1Department of Philosophy and Center for Bioethics, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA.


The traditional contrast between naturalist and normativist disease concepts fails to capture the most salient features of the health concepts debate. By using health concepts as a window on background notions of medical science and ethics, I show how Christopher Boorse (an influential naturalist) and Lennart Nordenfelt (an influential normativist) actually share deep assumptions about the character of medicine. Their disease concepts attempt, in different ways, to shore up the same medical model. For both, health concepts function like demarcation criteria in the philosophy of science: they mark off the jurisdiction of medical science, and protect it from an inappropriate intrusion of socioeconomic factors, which threaten the integrity of modern medicine. These views are challenged by new developments in healthcare such as managed care and total quality review. To frame the health concepts debate in a way that better captures the issues integral to these new developments, I advance a new way of reading the distinction between weak and strong normativists. Strong normativists are skeptical of the demarcation project, think facts and values cannot be disentangled, and hold that socioeconomic conditions unavoidably influence how pathology is understood. The new health concepts debate should be framed as one between weak and strong normativists, and it concerns how we should respond to the current developments in health care.

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