Uehiro Internal Research Seminar: Dr Piotr Grzegorz Nowak

The constructivist view of moral status and the definition of death debate

Currently, the dominant view in the debate on the definition of death is that death should be equated with the cessation of an organism and that brain-dead patients are dead as organisms. However, empirical evidence collected by Allan Shewmon shows that brain-dead bodies under artificial support are, in fact, capable of maintaining many essential functions for living organisms, so according to him, they cannot be perceived as biologically dead. Shewmon’s findings argue for changes in healthcare policies related to brain-dead. One option is to substitute the biological concept of death with a moral one based on the irreversible loss of moral status. Yet the idea of moral status in the context of the definition of death has not been adequately analyzed yet, and to date, it is not clear if brain dead lack moral status. This piece of research will dispel the doubts about the moral status of brain-dead. 
I will argue that in common parlance, we use the word “death” and its cognates mainly as a thick moral concept meaning irreversible loss of A status as a valuer (whatever A is precisely). Such understanding significantly differs from the biological meaning of the term, which means disintegration of some complex organic entity. I will emphasize that “moral status” is a characteristic that makes us obligated towards a given entity as a valuer instead of being obliged merely regarding the valuation of some valuer. The first sort of obligations will be called “direct,” while the second will be called “indirect.” As I will argue, the direct obligations towards any entity might be grounded only in two characteristics, namely in sentience and in the capability of reflection about the course of action (also incompletely realized). In contrast, “indirect” moral obligations are grounded in the acts of valuations of entities holding moral status. Since brain-dead patients lack any capacity for sentience and reflection, they can be properly called dead in the moral sense. 
The proposed understanding of moral status is of constructivist provenience. It assumes that agents and sentient beings construct moral reasons and obligations by conferring values on the world. I will show how such an approach helps us to solve some problems. One such issue is that utilitarian preference theories grant to brain-dead patients just the same moral status as to severely demented people.

Speaker: Piotr Grzegorz Nowak is an assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He is primarily interested in bioethics, especially in the ethics of organ transplantation and in the brain death debate. Piotr has published numerous works about these topics written both in English and Polish. He is currently the principal investigator in the research grant “Concepts of death” funded by the National Science Centre (Poland). 

This internal talk is for Oxford Uehiro Centre members and associates.


Zoom Meeting: Email rachel.gaminiratne@philosophy.ox.ac.uk to request the meeting link and passcode