The human organism is not a conductorless orchestra: a defense of brain death as true biological death

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 40 (5):437-453 (2019)


In this paper, I argue that brain death is death because, despite the appearance of genuine integration, the brain-dead body does not in fact possess the unity that is proper to a human organism. A brain-dead body is not a single entity, but a multitude of organs and tissues functioning in a coordinated manner with the help of artificial life support. In order to support this claim, I first lay out Hoffmann and Rosenkrantz’s ontological account of the requirements for organismal unity and summarize an earlier paper in which I apply this account to the brain death debate. I then further support this ontological argument by developing an analogy between the requirements for the unity of an organism and the requirements for the unity of an orchestra. To do so, I begin by examining the role that a conductor plays in unifying a traditional orchestra, and then go on to show that the human organism functions like a traditional orchestra that relies upon a conductor for its unity. Next, I consider the conditions required to achieve orchestral unity in conductorless orchestras and show that, in contrast to simpler organisms like plants, the postnatal human organism lacks those conditions. I argue, in other words, that although conductorless orchestras do exist, the human organism is not one of them. Like a traditional orchestra without a conductor, the brain-dead body is not a unified whole.

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Melissa Moschella
Catholic University of America

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