Charlotte Duffee

PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

I am a PhD candidate in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Toronto with a specialization in bioethics from the Joint Centre for Bioethics. My dissertation, which I plan to defend this summer, explores the history and philosophy of medical ideas about suffering. My current and future research areas include the following:

Histories of Suffering in Western Medicine and Thought

My current historical research has two major components. The first surveys the state of the art of suffering in the history of medicine and cautions against reasoning about suffering in an historical vaccuum. The second charts the emergence of a contemporary medical discourse about suffering, which most scholars say started in America during the early 1980s. I focus on the dominant theory in this discourse, proposed by physician Eric Cassell (1928-2021). I investigate some of the cultural factors that encouraged his theory to emerge with great success when it did, focusing specifically on ideas about suffering trafficked between medicine and law. My future work will build on this project, investigating influences additional disciplines may have had on Western medical notions of suffering. This study will recover concepts and moral values of suffering in a collected volume of the Western canon.

Philosophical Implications of My Historical Findings & Philosophies of Suffering More Broadly

My philosophical research examines the implications of my historical findings for theories of suffering today. Some bioethicists have criticized Cassell for narrowly focusing on suffering that feels damaging, which they say is not how all suffering is perceived; I historically contextualize these objections by connecting Cassell's concentration on damage to the legal notions of suffering that influenced him, which share the same focus. In this way, my historical findings support existing critiques. But these objections notwithstanding, many scholars continue to endorse his account, so I also work to square the strengths they see in Cassell's model with its shortcomings by exploring different ways to rehabilitate his view. In doing so, I brush up against some deep questions about the generalizability of suffering, which I explore in preliminary ways. My future philosophical work will address these and related conceptual issues in greater detail using the results from my historical study of the Western canon, with an eye toward contemporary medical debates over the measurement, assessment, and treatment of suffering. I also have the following additional interests in suffering: distinctions between pain and suffering; discrepancies between pain science and bioethical theories of suffering; the satisfactoriness of these theories; and whether suffering from disease and injury can be noble.


BA: Philosophy

University of Toronto

MA: Philosophy

The New School

MA: Bioethics

New York University