Are Brain Dead Individuals Dead? Grounds for Reasonable Doubt

J Med Philos. 2016 Jun;41(3):329-50. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhw003. Epub 2016 Apr 13.


According to the biological definition of death, a human body that has not lost the capacity to holistically organize itself is the body of a living human individual. Reasonable doubt against the conclusion that it has lost the capacity exists when the body appears to express it and no evidence to the contrary is sufficient to rule out reasonable doubt against the conclusion that the apparent expression is a true expression (i.e., when the conclusion that what appears to be holistic organization is in fact holistic organization remains a reasonable explanatory hypothesis in light of the best evidence to the contrary). This essay argues that the evidence and arguments against the conclusion that the signs of complex bodily integration exhibited in ventilated brain dead bodies are true expressions of somatic integration are unpersuasive; that is, they are not adequate to exclude reasonable doubt against the conclusion that BD bodies are dead. Since we should not treat as corpses what for all we know might be living human beings, it follows that we have an obligation to treat BD individuals as if they were living human beings.

Keywords: brain death; death; organ donation; organism; somatic integration; unity.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethical Issues*
  • Body Constitution
  • Brain Death*
  • Christianity
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Personhood*
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Religion and Medicine*