Brains, death, and definition

In the latest issue of The New Atlantis Alan Rubenstein—a staff member of the United States President’s Council on Bioethics—discusses a report written by that council, entitled and about, Controversies in the Determination of Death. “At stake in the report,” he says, “is the moral status of those human beings who are ‘suspended at the threshold.’” No doubt you (like myself) assumed there was a standard medical criterion for the death of someone in such a state: they’re dead if they’re brain dead. But since the turn of the century the nominal justification given for this projection of the predicate “is dead” has been called into dispute (most notably by D. Alan Shewmon). That justification is this: the brain is needed to sustain a unity of operations in the body which, unlike respiration and a regular pulse, cannot be sustained beyond “brain death” by a ventilating machine. These other operations, it was claimed, cannot be sustained by anything but the brain. So there is no point in keeping a “heart-beating cadaver” (as Rubenstein puts it) in a hospital bed. Shewmon’s work (and others like him) suggests otherwise.

For Rubenstein’s article go here. For the report itself go here.

Related articles:

£1.99 - small Three strands in Kripke’s argument against the identity theory
By Jesper Kallestrup, University of Edinburgh
(Vol. 3, November 2008)
Philosophy Compass

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