From the Language of Values to the Language of Medicine


In his Moral Theory and Medical Practice Bill (KWM) Fulford applied the work of the Oxford School on the language of values (the ‘moral theory’ of his title) to the language of medicine.

Moral Theory and Medical Practice
Fulford, K.W.M. (1989, reprinted 1995 and 1999) Moral Theory and Medical Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

This approach builds on an idea first suggested by Mary Warnock as Bill’s DPhil supervisor. It owes much also to his other supervisors, Geoffrey Warnock and RM Hare, and, at a later stage, Anthony Quinton.

Anthony Quinton
Anthony Quinton

The Line of Argument

The argument of Moral Theory and Medical Practice aims to show that the meanings attached to terms such as ‘disease’, ‘illness’ and ‘dysfunction’ in medical and related areas of everyday (ordinary) usage (such as their relatively value-laden uses in some contexts but not in others) are best explained if these terms are value terms.

The claim that ‘disease’, ‘illness’ and ‘dysfunction’ are value terms is consistent with their having important descriptive (including scientific) content. But it insists that they have (irreducibly) evaluative content as well. The consequence is that ‘disease’, ‘illness’ and ‘dysfunction’, as key terms in the language of medicine, share certain logical properties with terms such as ‘good’, ‘ought’ and ‘right’ in the language of values.

It is these shared logical properties that explain the features of the ordinary usage of ‘disease’, ‘illness’ and ‘dysfunction’ in medicine. And it is this explanation – of the language of medicine being equally evaluative as descriptive – that in turn provides the theoretical basis for values-based practice as a partner to evidence-based practice in clinical care.

Bridges between Philosophy and Practice

Important bridges between the theory and practice of values-based practice included

  • The Oxford Practice Skills Program with its emphasis on the role of learnable clinical skills
  • The work of the Society for Health and Human Values and other organizations of the diversity of values

Further details of these are given in the Read More section below on the Derivation of Values-based Practice

Read More: about the Derivation of Values-based Practice