Defining human death: An intersection of bioethics and metaphysics

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


For many years now, bioethicists, physicians, and others in the medical field have disagreed concerning how to best define human death. Different theories range from the Harvard Criteria of Brain Death, which defines death as the cessation of all brain activity, to the Cognitive Criteria, which is based on the loss of almost all core mental properties, e.g., memory, self-consciousness, moral agency, and the capacity for reason. A middle ground is the Irreversibility Standard, which defines death as occurring when the capacity for consciousness is forever lost. Given all these different theories, how can we begin to approach solving the issue of how to define death? I propose that a necessary starting point is discussing an even more fundamental question that properly belongs in the philosophical field of metaphysics: we must first address the issue of diachronic identity over time, and the persistence conditions of personal identity. In this paper, I illustrate the interdependent relationship between this metaphysical question and questions concerning the definition of death. I also illustrate how it is necessary to antecedently attend to the metaphysical issue of defining death before addressing certain issues in medical ethics, e.g., whether it is morally permissible to euthanize patients in persistent vegetative states or procure organs from anencephalic infants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-292
Number of pages10
JournalReviews in the Neurosciences
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009


  • Anencephaly
  • Animalism
  • Bioethics
  • Brain death
  • Embodied mind account
  • Euthanasia
  • Metaphysics
  • Persistent vegetative state
  • Personal identity
  • Philosophy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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