Defining death for persons and human organisms

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 20 (5):439-453 (1999)
Abstract
This paper discusses how alternative concepts of personhood affect the definition of death. I argue that parties in the debate over the definition of death have employed different concepts of personhood, and thus have been talking past each other by proposing definitions of death for different kinds of things. In particular, I show how critics of the consciousness-related, neurological formation of death have relied on concepts of personhood that would be rejected by proponents of that formulation. These critics rest on treating persons as qualitative specifications of human organisms (Bernat, Culver, and Gert) or as identical to human organisms (Capron, Seifert, and Shewmon). Since advocates of the consciousness-related, neurological formulation of death are not committed to either of these views of personhood, these critics commit the fallacy of attacking a straw man. I then clarify the substantive concept of personhood (Boethius, Strawson, and Wiggins) that may be invoked in the consciousness-related, neurological formulation of death, and argue that, on this view and contra Bernat, Culver, and Gert, persons have always been the kind of thing that can literally die. I conclude by suggesting that the discussion of defining death needs to focus on which approach to personhood makes the most sense metaphysically and morally.
Keywords death  definition of death  persons  human organism  permanent vegetative state  persistent vegetative state  anencephaly  consciousness  Strawson  Wiggins
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