Naturalism about health and disease: adding nuance for progress

J Med Philos. 2014 Dec;39(6):590-608. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhu037. Epub 2014 Nov 4.


The literature on health and diseases is usually presented as an opposition between naturalism and normativism. This article argues that such a picture is too simplistic: there is not one opposition between naturalism and normativism, but many. I distinguish four different domains where naturalist and normativist claims can be contrasted: (1) ordinary usage, (2) conceptually clean versions of "health" and "disease," (3) the operationalization of dysfunction, and (4) the justification for that operationalization. In the process I present new arguments in response to Schwartz (2007) and Hausman (2012) and expose a link between the arguments made by Schwartz (2007) and Kingma (2010). Distinguishing naturalist claims at these four domains will allow us to make progress by (1) providing more nuanced, intermediate positions about a possible role for values in health and disease; and (2) assisting in the addressing of relativistic worries about the value-ladenness of health and disease.

Keywords: Boorse; Hausman; Kingma; Schwartz; disease; disorder; dysfunction; health; naturalism; normativism; philosophy; relativism.

MeSH terms

  • Disease*
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Philosophy, Medical*