When is somebody just some body? Ethics as first philosophy and the brain death debate

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 40 (5):419-436 (2019)
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I, along with others, have been critical of the social construction of brain death and the various social factors that led to redefining death from cardiopulmonary failure to irreversible loss of brain functioning, or brain death. Yet this does not mean that brain death is not the best threshold to permit organ harvesting—or, as people today prefer to call it, organ procurement. Here I defend whole-brain death as a morally legitimate line that, once crossed, is grounds for families to give permission for organ donation. I do so in five moves. First, I make the case that whole-brain death is a social construction that transformed one thing, coma dépassé, into another thing, brain death, as a result of social pressures. Second, I explore the way that the 1981 President’s Commission tried to establish the epistemological certainty of brain death, hoping to avoid making arcane metaphysical claims and yet still utilizing metaphysical claims about human beings. Third, I explore the moral meaning of the social construction of a definition that cannot offer metaphysical certainty about the point at which somebody becomes just some body. Fourth, I describe how two moral communities—Jewish and Catholic—actually ground their metaphysical positions with regard to brain death in the normativity of prior social relations. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on the aesthetic-moral enterprise of the metaphysical-epistemological apparatus of brain death, concluding that only such an aesthetic-moral approach is sufficiently strong to stave off the utility-maximizing tendencies of late-modern Western cultures.



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Jeffrey Bishop
Saint Louis University

Citations of this work

Brain death: new questions and fresh perspectives.Farr Curlin - 2019 - Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 40 (5):355-358.

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References found in this work

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I and Thou.Martin Buber - 1970 - New York,: Scribner. Edited by Walter Arnold Kaufmann.
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Defining Death.William Charlton - 2022 - New Blackfriars 103 (1107):607-621.

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