Our current understanding of sepsis and multiple organ dysfunction needs to be revised, as the uniformly negative results of new therapies for these disorders suggest. Previous theories for the pathogenesis of these conditions are incomplete; reasons for this include the following. First, the surrogate models that have been used to study these disorders are not analogous to the clinical situation. Second, patients who have less severe manifestations of these diseases are often overlooked. And third, patients' preexisting conditions have not been taken into account. Considerable new evidence indicates that, in addition to a massive proinflammatory reaction, a compensatory anti-inflammatory response contributes to the onset of these disorders. At a local site of injury or infection and during the initial appearance of pro- and anti-inflammatory mediators in the circulation, the beneficial effects of these mediators outweigh their harmful effects. Only when the balance between these two forces is lost do these mediators become harmful. Sequelae of an unbalanced systemic proinflammatory reaction include shock, transudation into organs, and defects in coagulation. An unbalanced systemic compensatory anti-inflammatory response can result in anergy and immunosuppression. The proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory forces may ultimately reinforce each other, creating a state of increasingly destructive immunologic dissonance.