3 years ago

Illness and disease: an empirical-ethical viewpoint

Anna-Henrikje Seidlein, Sabine Salloch



The concepts of disease, illness and sickness capture fundamentally different aspects of phenomena related to human ailments and healthcare. The philosophy and theory of medicine are making manifold efforts to capture the essence and normative implications of these concepts. In parallel, socio-empirical studies on patients’ understanding of their situation have yielded a comprehensive body of knowledge regarding subjective perspectives on health-related statuses. Although both scientific fields provide varied valuable insights, they have not been strongly linked to each other. Therefore, the article aims to scrutinise the normative-ethical implications of patient perspectives in building a bridge to the empirical ethics debates.

Main text

Three potential fields of tension between the illness and the disease perspective are presented. Consequently, findings from empirical research examining patient perspectives on illness are displayed and the practical implications and associated ethical issues which arise are discussed. This leads to the conclusion that an explicit and elaborate empirical-ethical methodology is needed to deal appropriately with the complex interaction between patients’ views and the medico-professional view of disease. Kon’s four-stage model of normative-empirical collaboration is then applied against the background of empirical data on patient perceptions. Starting from this exemplary approach, the article suggests employing empirical-ethical frameworks for further research on the conceptual and normative issues, as they help to integrate perspectives from the philosophy of medicine with socio-empirical research.


The combination of theoretical and empirical perspectives suggested contributes to a more nuanced discussion of the normative impact of patients’ actual understanding of illness. Further empirical research in this area would profit from explicitly considering potential ethical issues to avoid naturalistic fallacies or crypto-normative conclusions that may compromise healthcare practice. Vice versa, medico-theoretical debates could be enriched by integrating subjective views of those people who are immediately affected.

Open access
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