Bioethics Blogs

Why defining death leaves me cold

by John Banja, PhD

*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.


Two weeks ago, I attended a panel session on brain death at the annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. Forgive the bad pun, but the experience left me cold and …lifeless(?). The panel consisted of three scholars revisiting the more than a decade old conversation on defining death. Despite a standing room only crowd, there was utterly nothing new. Rather, we heard a recitation of the very familiar categories that have historically figured in the “What does it mean to be dead?” debate, e.g., the irreversible cessation of cardio-respiratory activity, the Harvard Brain Death criteria, the somatic integration account, the 2008 Presidential Commission’s “loss of the drive to breathe,” and so on. I walked out thinking that we could come back next year, and the year after that, and the year after that and get no closer to resolving what it means to be dead.

Dr. Banja in his natural habitat.

I’d suggest that the reason for this failure is the stubborn persistence of scholars to mistake a social practice, i.e., defining death, for a metaphysical event. Philosophers who insist on keeping the “defining death” conversation alive are invariably moral realists: They mistakenly believe that death is an objectively discernible, universally distributed, a priori, naturally occurring phenomenon that philosophical reasoning and analysis can divine.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.