Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Does the harm component of the harmful dysfunction analysis need rethinking?: Reply to Powell and Scarffe
  1. Jerome C Wakefield1,
  2. Jordan A Conrad2,3
  1. 1 Silver School of Social Work; Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine; and Center for Bioethics, College of Global Public Health, New York University, New York, New York, USA
  2. 2 Center for Bioethics, College of Global Public Health, New York University, New York, New York, USA
  3. 3 Institute for Philosophy, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, BE
  1. Correspondence to Professor Jerome C Wakefield, Department of Social Work and Psychiatry, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA; jerome.wakefield{at}

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

In ‘Rethinking Disease’, Powell and Scarffe1 propose what in effect is a modification of Jerome Wakefield’s2 3 harmful dysfunction analysis (HDA) of medical (including mental) disorder. The HDA maintains that ‘disorder’ (or ‘disease’ in Powell and Scarffe’s terminology) is a hybrid factual and value concept requiring that a biological dysfunction, understood as a failure of some feature to perform a naturally selected function, causes harm to the individual as evaluated by social values. Powell and Scarffe accept both the HDA’s evolutionary biological function component and its incorporation of a value component. Their proposed ‘new twist’ is to revise the value component: ‘Our proposed definition of disease is as follows: a biomedical state is a disease only if it implicates a biological dysfunction that is, or would be, properly disvalued’. So, they propose that a disorder is a ‘properly disvalued dysfunction’ rather than a ‘harmful dysfunction’, an approach they term ‘thickly normative’ in contrast to the thin normative approach of the HDA. 

There has been a surge of interest recently in better understanding the ‘harm’ component of the HDA. Powell and Scarffe’s analysis is a helpful contribution to this discussion. We focus here exclusively on their proposal regarding the analysis of the concept of disorder and ignore many important related issues that the authors address, ranging from prioritising resource allocation between disorders and non-disorders to whether the concept of disorder should be replaced by a generic welfarist concept. The resolution of these additional issues depends on first understanding ‘disorder’. The authors’ proposed changes to the HDA also deserve evaluation because the HDA, which has been endorsed by leading nosologists,4 plays an influential role in nosological debate across categories of disorder ranging, for example, from sexual paraphilias5 to psychopathy.6

A basic problem is that Powell and Scarffe misinterpret …

View Full Text


  • Contributors JW and JC: conceptualised and wrote the commentary.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

Linked Articles