restricted access Changing Functions, Moral Responsibility, and Mental Illness
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Changing Functions, Moral Responsibility, and Mental Illness

mental illness, responsibility, character, dysfunction, personhood

I thank both Wakefield and Tomasini for their illuminating comments. Both commentaries are thought provoking and warrant a full response. However, as always, space is limited and I must make the all-too-predictable apology for not addressing both commentaries in full. Wakefield's contribution more directly engages with, and challenges, my claims, and so I focus on addressing his concerns.


Wakefield correctly notes that I am interested in how mental illness (and illness generally) operates to remove moral responsibility for one's actions. Despite this, it seems at several points that he and I are talking about two different, albeit related, concepts of mental illness. 'Mental illness' is used to both explain and excuse certain behaviors, but these two functions, explanatory and exculpable, do not always operate simultaneously. As we discover biological explanations for apparently immoral behaviors, the question arises as to whether the explanation should remove the immorality and liability for punishment. The 'sick role' can be divided into two aspects. One is the role of deserving and warranting medical treatment. The other is the negation of moral responsibility. Wakefield's own example, pedophilia, involves the first sense of the sick role but not the second. Wakefield's use of this example is unusual, because it deftly highlights the limitation of his HD account. Pedophilia is a mental disorder in the sense of warranting treatment, and is a mental illness under Wakefield's model, but it is not something that negates moral responsibility. There is a sense of the term 'mental illness'—an important and, as I argue, an objective sense—that is relevant to establishing one's moral responsibility for such behaviors.

In addressing my account of mental illness as though it contained two distinct answers, 'mental illness as dysfunction of rational agency, or 'mental illness as moral judgment,' it is unclear whether Wakefield takes them to be conjunctive or alternative. Hence it is worth reiterating in point form the structure of my account:

  1. 1. Illness involves dysfunction;

  2. 2. The 'proper function' of a bodily or psychological mechanism is determined by the purpose that we impose upon that mechanism (within the constraints of our biological needs);

  3. 3. Dysfunction of rational agency is necessary, but not sufficient, for 'mental illness' in the normative sense relevant to negating moral responsibility; and [End Page 105]

  4. 4. The distinction between 'mental illness' (in the above sense) and the many dysfunctions of rational agency for which we are morally responsible, turns upon (objective) normative facts rather than features internal to the dysfunctions themselves.

Functions and Value

Wakefield misses the point when he criticizes my comment that, although bodily mechanisms are fairly uniformly valued, there is substantial historical and cross-cultural variation in the way people value personhood. He notes—accurately, but irrelevantly—that people almost always place great value on their capacity for rational agency, probably more so than many aspects of their physical health. My comment, taken in context, has nothing to do with how much people value personhood, but has everything to do with what kinds of purposes people want their mental and physical processes to achieve. A heart has the same function for a Londoner today as it did for a Japanese peasant a thousand years ago, and although it is possible for us to want it to achieve other purposes, any culture that seriously imputes a different set of vital functions on the heart is likely to be rather disappointed. By contrast, our species has experienced vast changes in the demands we make of our rational and intellectual capacities—dysfunctions like dyslexia and alcoholism were irrelevant before the availability of written communication and alcohol.

Wakefield's HD account is unable to deal with the relevance of such change. The link between evolutionary function and illness is tenuous in any event. Evolutionary explanations of specific mechanisms are often untestable, simply positing some evolutionary purpose that happens to fit our understanding of what the mechanism does. If we were to discover that alcoholism evolved as a means of increasing birthrates, or (perhaps more plausibly) that anxiety disorders occur among those for whom...