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"Brain Death," Death, and Personal Identity

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The issue of brain death touches directly on questions pertaining to our understanding of what it means to be human. Technological progress made possible the sustaining of signs of life in individuals who seem dead to the world. The concept of brain death was introduced to describe this phenomenon, and to answer some of the normative questions that were raised by it. In my article, I approach the problem of brain death with a focus on its temporal aspects. First I sketch out some general features of human life and death in terms of the theories of time of J. T. Fraser and G. Dux. Then I describe and analyze various definitions of brain death and criteria for its testing.The two most important variants are 'whole brain death' as the death of the organism, and 'cerebral death' as the death of the person. I discuss arguments in favor of, and against these concepts and analyze the framework and structuring of temporalities involved in each of them. I conclude that the extant theories in favor of 'brain death' are unsatisfactory, for factual and conceptual reasons. Most importantly, they neglect essential factors of personal identity. Because they employ a naturalistic concept of the human body, they fail to grasp its expressive quality and its function as a medium of communication. Furthermore, they fail to grasp the social dimension of personal identity. Because the concepts of 'brain death' as a criterion for the determination of death fail, we should regard brain-dead people as living human beings, and decide about their treatment accordingly.


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