Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis of disorder and the problem of defining harm to nonsentient organisms

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This paper criticizes Jerome Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis (HDA) of disorder by arguing that the conceptual linkage it establishes between the medical concepts of health and disorder and the prudential notions of well-being and harm makes the account inapplicable to nonsentient organisms, such as plants, fungi, and many invertebrate animals. Drawing on a previous formulation of this criticism by Christopher Boorse, and noting that Wakefield could avoid it if he adopted a partly biofunction-based account of interests like that often advocated in the field of environmental ethics, I argue that integrating such an account of interests into the HDA would generate serious concerns. Specifically, it would make dysfunction sufficient for disorder and so reestablish between dysfunction and disorder precisely the kind of sufficiency relation that harm-requiring accounts of disorder strive to avoid; blur the line between the HDA’s dysfunction and harm components and, in so doing, deprive the HDA of its alleged main advantage over monistic dysfunction-based accounts of disorders like Boorse’s; and tie the HDA to an understanding of harm that is in itself problematic. I argue that these three concerns, and the dilemmas they generate, rob the HDA of much of its prima facie appeal, ultimately indicating that a satisfactory account of disorder should most likely eschew all references to prudential notions of well-being and harm.

This content has been updated on 5 April 2022 at 9 h 18 min.