Rethinking “Disease”: A Fresh Diagnosis and a New Philosophical Treatment
Jointly organised by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities
Venue: Colin Matthew Room, Radcliffe Humanities, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Rd, Oxford
Speaker: Russell Powell
Abstract: Despite several decades of debate, the concept of disease remains hotly contested. The debate is typically cast as one between naturalism and normativism, with a hybrid view that combines elements of each staked out in between. In light of a number of widely discussed problems with existing accounts, some theorists argue that the concept of disease is beyond repair and thus recommend eliminating it in a wide range of practical medical contexts. Any attempt to reframe the ‘disease’ discussion should not only answer the more basic skeptical challenge, but it should also include a meta-methodological critique guided by our pragmatic expectations of what the disease concept ought to do given that medical diagnosis is woven into a complex network of healthcare institutions. In this paper, I attempt such a reframing, arguing that while prevailing accounts do not suffer from the particular defects that prominent critics have identified, they do suffer from other deficits—and this leads me to propose an amended hybrid view that not only places objectivist approaches to disease on stronger theoretical footing, but also satisfies the institutional-ethical desiderata of a concept of disease in human medicine. Nevertheless, I do not advocate a procrustean approach to “disease.” Instead, I recommend disease concept pluralism between medical and biological sciences in order to allow the concept to serve the different epistemic and institutional goals of these respective disciplines.
Russell Powell is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. Prior to joining BU, he was a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He received his PhD in Philosophy and M.S. in Evolutionary Biology from Duke University, and his Juris Doctor from New York University School of Law. Russell specializes in the philosophy of biological and biomedical science, focusing on conceptual and methodological problems in evolutionary theory, the ethical dimensions of emerging biosciences, and intersections between ethics and philosophy of science more broadly. His book The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory (Oxford University Press, 2018), co-authored with Allen Buchanan, is due out in May. He is currently finishing up another book titled Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind (MIT Press), which is slated to come out in the fall. Before returning to philosophy, Russell worked as an attorney of the global law firm Skadden, Arps LLP, where he practiced complex pharmaceutical liability litigation.