A Thomistic understanding of human death

Bioethics 19 (1):29–48 (2005)
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I investigate Thomas Aquinas's metaphysical account of human death, which is defined in terms of a rational soul separating from its material body. The question at hand concerns what criterion best determines when this separation occurs. Aquinas argues that a body has a rational soul only insofar as it is properly organised to support the soul's vegetative, sensitive, and rational capacities. According to the ‘higher‐brain’ concept of death, when a body can no longer provide the biological foundation necessary for the operation of conscious rational thought and volition, a substantial change occurs in which the rational soul departs and the body left behind is a ‘humanoid animal’ or a mere ‘vegetable.’I argue that the separation of soul and body does not occur until the body ceases to function as a unified, integrated organism. A rational soul is not only the seat of a human being's rational capacities; it is also the principle of the body's sensitive and vegetative capacities. Since Aquinas defines a human being as a composite of soul and body, and not with merely the exercise of rational capacities, the determination of death requires incontrovertible evidence that the body has ceased all the operations that correspond to the soul's proper capacities. The evidence of this is the body's loss of its integrative organic unity and the criterion for determining when this loss occurs is the irreversible cessation of whole‐brain functioning.



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Jason Eberl
Saint Louis University

Citations of this work

Total Brain Death and the Integration of the Body Required of a Human Being.Patrick Lee - 2016 - Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 41 (3):300-314.
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Death as Material Kenosis: A Thomistic Proposal.Marco Stango - 2020 - Heythrop Journal 61 (2):327-346.
The End of (Human) Life as We Know It.Christina Van Dyke - 2012 - Modern Schoolman 89 (3):243-257.

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References found in this work

Japan's Dilemma with the Definition of Death.Rihito Kimura - 1991 - Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1 (2):123-131.
Humanness, Personhood, and the Right to Die.J. P. Moreland - 1995 - Faith and Philosophy 12 (1):95-112.
Cloning, Aquinas, and the Embryonic Person.Benedict Ashley & Albert Moraczewski - 2001 - The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 1 (2):189-201.
Aquinas Versus Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics.Stan Wallace - 1995 - International Philosophical Quarterly 35 (3):319-330.

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