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Health as a Theoretical Concept

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2022

Christopher Boorse*
University of Delaware


This paper argues that the medical conception of health as absence of disease is a value-free theoretical notion. Its main elements are biological function and statistical normality, in contrast to various other ideas prominent in the literature on health. Apart from universal environmental injuries, diseases are internal states that depress a functional ability below species-typical levels. Health as freedom from disease is then statistical normality of function, i.e., the ability to perform all typical physiological functions with at least typical efficiency. This conception of health is as value-free as statements of biological function. The view that health is essentially value-laden, held by most writers on the topic, seems to have one of two sources: an assumption that health judgments must be practical judgments about the treatment of patients, or a commitment to “positive” health beyond the absence of disease. I suggest that the assumption is mistaken, the commitment possibly misdescribed.

Special Section on Value Issues in Science, Technology, and Medicine
Copyright © Philosophy of Science Association 1977

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Among many people who helped improve this paper, special thanks go to Caroline Whitbeck, Drs. John and Sidney Cobb, Jerry Cohen, and the referees for Philosophy of Science. Partial support was provided by the Delaware Institute for Medical Education and Research and the National Institute of Mental Health (#R03 MH24621).


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