Is there anyone who would?

Sam Harris has a new article on a science of morality at the Huffington Post. There’s a lot there, but one observation in particular snagged my attention.

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’?

Wonder no more! There is indeed. There is the anthropologist Frederique Apffel Marglin, who once wrote* that

In absolutely negativizing disease, suffering and death, in opposing these to health and life in a mutually exclusive manner, the scientific medical system of knowledge can separate in individuals and in populations what is absolutely bad, the enemy to be eradicated, from what is good, health and life. In the process it can and does objectify people with all the repressive political possibilities that objectification opens.

And she meant it. She wasn’t writing a parody of postmodernist science-skepticism, she was writing the thing itself. I observed in 2003

There is something a little breathtaking in a level of science-phobia that can see ‘negativizing’ disease, suffering and death, as harmful and repressive. One is reminded of Woody Allen’s retort to a character’s reproach, in ‘The Front’, that he really wanted success: ‘So what should I want, a disease?’ Does Marglin seriously think that disease, suffering and death (the death of other people, remember, as well as one’s own) would be a source of joy and pleasure if only it weren’t for the ’scientific medical system of knowledge’? Has the postmodern left become so tone deaf that it can hear no echo of the complacent droning of landowners and priests (and colonialists, surely) about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate?

*F.A. Marglin, ‘Smallpox in two Systems of Knowledge’, in Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance, eds. F.A. Marglin and S.A. Marglin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

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