What does it mean to be dead?


In a controversial Journal of Medical Ethics article in 2012, two prominent ethicists criticised traditional beliefs about the ‘wrongness of killing’. Walter Sinnot-Armstrong and Franklin G. Miller claimed taboos on killing are really about protecting people from the total deprivation of their own human ‘abilities’. We should revise our taboo, they argued, to prohibit the deprivation of abilities, not killing in all circumstances.

In a response to Armstrong and Miller’s article, Adam Omelianchuk of the University of South Carolina has claimed that the authors’ ‘abilities’ approach leaves open the door for unacceptable exploitation of incapacitated human beings. Omelianchuk criticises the authors’ preoccupation with ‘biographical life’, arguing that people even without a continuing ‘biography’ are undoubtedly worthy of certain rights:

“It is plausible to suppose that the right not to be cannibalised is generated by the non-instrumental worth of human life, and that cannibalism would disrespect us regardless of whether or not we are totally disabled.”

Omelianchuk also criticises the vagueness of the notion of ‘total disability’, arguing that it depends upon contingent factors about medical technology and our capacity to address debilitating conditions:

“Consider two people, Smith and Jones, who are in exactly similar comatose states, except that Smith lives in a well-off, technologically advanced society and Jones does not. Through intensive care, Smith’s doctors are able to reverse the effects of the coma, but Jones’s low level of care fails to improve his condition…if Jones were airlifted, he would become a person again”.

According Omelianchuk, there is sufficient justification to assert that personhood is an essential property of one’s humanity:

“In this view, a human being is taken to be an Aristotelian substance which instantiates a property of personhood that survives the loss of a subset of abilities necessary only for the expression of personhood.” 



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