Defining Death: Reasonableness and Legitimacy
The recently published World Brain Death Project aims in alleviating inconsistencies in clinical guidelines and practice in the determination of death by neurologic criteria. However, critics have taken issue with a number of epistemic and metaphysical assertions that critics argue are either false, ad hoc, or confused. In this commentary, I discuss the nature of a definition of death; the plausibility of neurologic criteria as a sensible social, medical, and legal policy; and within a Rawlsian liberal framework, reasons for personal choice or accommodation among neurologic and circulatory definitions. Declaration of human death cannot rest on contested metaphysics or unmeasurable standards, instead it should be regarded as a plausible and widely accepted social construct that conforms to best available and pragmatic medical science and practice. The definition(s) and criteria should be transparent, publicly justifiable, and potentially allow for the accommodation of reasonable choice. This is an approach that situates the definition of death as a political matter. The approach anticipates that no conceptualization of death can claim universal validity, since this is a question that cannot be settled solely on biologic or scientific grounds, rather it is a matter of normative preference, socially constructed and historically contingent.
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