Front Page Titles (by Subject) Defining a Person\'s Death - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1980, vol. 3, No. 3
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Defining a Person's Death - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1980, vol. 3, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Defining a Person's Death
“Brain Death and Personal Identity.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9, no.2(1980):105–133.
Can we justify the tendency to define death in terms of brain death instead of the cessation of heart and lung function? Arguments based upon biological and moral considerations have been advanced, but only an ontological argument—based on a defensible concept of personal identity—directly engages the issue of how we define death.
Biological arguments which define death as brain death emphasize the crucial role of the brain stem in regulating such life-functions as the heart and lung. Thus, when the whole brain dies, the other functions soon stop functioning as a system. But it is only a current technological limitation that the brain stem can't be replaced by an artificial aid which performs its regulating function. Hence the continual functioning of the lower brain stem is not essential to the systematic functioning of the organism.
Moral arguments which define death as brain death emphasize the crucial role of higher brain functioning in making consciousnes possible and thereby giving value to human life. Even if the body could survive death of the neocortex for several months or years, this type of life would have no more value for human life than preserving an appendix in a bottle of formaldehyde. It is therefore seen as appropriate to begin “death-behavior” (mourning, turning off life-supporting equipment, removing vital organs for transplant) when the neocortex has ceased functioning. However, defining death is not the same task as deciding when it is appropriate to begin death-behavior, since meaning is not determined by the behavior that it may give rise to. “We have only to realize that the moment of pulling the plug need not be the moment of death to see that defining death is a different job from deciding when it is best to remove the life-support systems.”
Once an ontological distinction is made between the patient and his identity, we can grant that the individual (say, Jones) may cease to exist even if “the patient” remains alive. Then, if the loss of capacity for mental activity occurs at brain death, and psychological continuity is a necessary condition for personal identity, Jones will cease to exist with brain death, even if “the patient” continues to live. Psychological continuity is a necessary condition for personal identity because it provides a causal tie between person-stages which the spatio-temporal continuity of brain tissue or other body structures can not provide. Thus, a given person ceases to exist with the destruction of whatever neurological processes underlie that person's psychological continuity and connectedness. It is not simply that a mindless future life would be of no value to us, but that such a life could not be ours. No moral conclusions follow from this definition of death, but it is unlikely that the definition could be used to justify euthanasia for those whose lives had merely ceased to have value.