Jun 6, 2023

idealism and modesty

Farr Curlin and Christopher Tollefsen:

[A]lthough we have noted that the state of health is…objectively desirable, and hence an aspect of human flourishing, the state of being healthy does not encompass all that goes into human flourishing. The World Health Organization errs when it defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.” A related error is made by the agrarian poet and social critic Wendell Berry, whose work emphasizes that human beings flourish only in community. Berry defines health as membership and argues that the smallest unit of health should be the community; thus, “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”

Such accounts, though admirable as critiques of reductionism and individualism, problematically raise health above all other human goods, making health not merely one human good but the state of human flourishing that encapsulates all human goods. If the end of medicine is health so understood — if medicine’s purpose is to bring about the fullness of life, the Hebrew concept of “shalom,” the World Health Organization’s vision of complete well-being, or even Berry’s vision of membership — it seems that physicians have a wide-open mandate. All is their responsibility, all their domain.

Curlin and Tollefsen are helping me sharpen up one of the central tensions we discuss at Olin: how to frame both a capacious understanding of engineering in culture without overclaiming for its purview. We needed to find both the idealism and the modesty. More on this in future posts.