Death, unity and the brain

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 40 (5):359-379 (2019)
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The Dead Donor Rule holds that removing organs from a living human being without their consent is wrongful killing. The rule still prevails in most countries, and I assume it without argument in order to pose the question: is it possible to have a metaphysically correct, clinically relevant analysis of human death that makes organ donation possible? I argue that the two dominant criteria of death, brain death and circulatory death, are both empirically and metaphysically inadequate as definitions of human death, and therefore of no epistemic value in themselves. I first set out a neo-Aristotelian theory of death as separation of soul and body, which is then fleshed out as loss of organismic integrity. The brain and circulatory criteria are shown to have severe weaknesses as physiological manifestations of loss of integrity. Given the mismatch between what death is metaphysically speaking, and the dominant criteria accepted by clinicians and philosophers, it turns out that only actual bodily decomposition is a sure sign of death. In this I differ from Alan Shewmon, whose important work I discuss in detail.



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David S. Oderberg
University of Reading