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Behav Res Ther. 2001 Mar;39(3):347-66.

Evolutionary history versus current causal role in the definition of disorder: reply to McNally.

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  • 1Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


The harmful dysfunction (HD) analysis (Wakefield, American Psychologist 47 (1992a) 373) asserts that "disorder" means "harmful dysfunction", where "harm" is a value concept anchored in social values and "dysfunction" is a factual concept referring to failure of a mechanism to perform a natural function. Additionally, the HD analysis claims that a mechanism's natural functions are its naturally selected effects. McNally (Behaviour Research and Therapy (2000) pp. 309-314) argues to the contrary that "dysfunction" is a value concept referring to negative failures of function, that "function" refers to current causal roles and not evolutionarily designed causal roles, and that "disorder" consequently means "harmful failure of a mechanism to perform a valued current causal role." I reply by showing that McNally's proposals lack the HD analysis's power to explain common judgments about function, dysfunction, and disorder. "Dysfunction" cannot be a negative value concept because many dysfunctions are positive or neutral; "function" cannot refer to current causal roles because many current causal roles are not functions and some functions are not current causal roles; and "disorder" cannot refer to harmful failures of current causal roles because that definition allows almost any negative condition whatever to be a disorder and thus fails to explain the distinctions we make between disorder and non-disorder.

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