*Editor's note: In case you missed our annual Zombies and Zombethics (TM) Symposium entitled Really, Most Sincerely Dead. Zombies, Vampires and Ghosts. Oh my! you can watch our opening keynote by Dr. Paul Root Wolpe by clicking on the image below. We recommend starting at 9:54 min.
|Dr. Banja in his natural habitat.|
|Death contains a social component, as depicted in The Court of Death by Rembrandt Peale|
The problem with the various death defining criteria is that, at least to me, they all have a ring of plausibility. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be seriously discussed.) This especially includes Robert Veatch’s position that we should leave the nature of death determination up to the individual.* According to Veatch, if I believe that I’m as good as dead if I enter a state of permanent unconsciousness, then I should be treated as such: discontinue all life prolonging care; prepare to dispose of my bodily remains in a respectable way; and if my beating heart disturbs anyone, inject it with curare or a reasonable substitute to stop it.
The idea that death is a “natural occurrence” is only loosely and metaphorically true. In fact, death is largely a socio-cultural happening that derives from social needs or pressures—like the Harvard Brain Death criteria deriving from the need for a dead organ donor or to assist the courts in their prosecution of murderers. The idea that philosophers can discern the “real and true” essence of death—because we mistakenly think the answer sits out there in the biosphere waiting to be discovered—seems an intellectual conceit. We don’t need philosophers to tell us how our social practices should work. It’s up to the rest of us to experiment with them and retain the ones that work best. And that’s what will happen if there are further chapters in the social narrative around defining death: Future generations will meet that challenge according to the survival pressures that living and dying present to them. Philosophical definitions of death might be interesting and even illuminating. But contemporary, western societies will most likely decide when death occurs according to pragmatically reasonable criteria than philosophically subtle ones.
Want to cite this post?
Banja, J. (2015). Why defining death leaves me cold. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/11/why-defining-death-leaves-me-cold_3.html