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The latest on “brain death”

My post a few months back also mentioned a NCBQ piece on diagnosing death using neurological criteria. The Autumn issue includes a review of what sounds like an interesting and relevant book. Jason T. Eberl reviews Russell DiSilvestro’s Human Capacities and Moral Status (NCBQ 11 [2011]: 596-98). According to the review, DiSilvestro departs from the Aristotelian (and, I’d add, Thomistic) understanding that a living human body needs to have an active capacity for participation in the rational life of the human soul. DiSilvestro thinks that it is sufficient that an entity have a merely passive capacity for such participation in order to be a living human body (and, hence, a human person). Like Eberl, I’m skeptical. But I need to give this book a read one of these months.

Along related lines, the Summer 2011 Communio includes a pair of articles on “brain death”: Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, “You Only Die Twice: Augustine, Aquinas, The Council of Vienne, and Death by the Brain Criterion,” Communio 38 (2011): 308-25; and Robert Spaemann, “Is Brain Death the Death of a Human Person?” Communio 38 (2011): 326-40. Tonti-Fillipini argues that “brain death” is death. In particular, he writes: “I do not think that [Alan] Shewmon has been rigorous enough in what he considers to be [bodily] integration.” His explanation is helpful, I would say. I think that the problem with Shewmon’s view (shared by many others) could be indicated even more strongly by reference to the importance of final cause (rationality) rather than simply material/efficient cause in true ‘integration.’ (I think that though Shewmon has sometimes said that those who think “brain death” is death are being Cartesians, it is really Shewmon who is being Cartesian rather than Aristotelian/Thomist.) Spaemann argues that brain death isn’t death – relying heavily on Shewmon and others. Obviously, I don’t think his argument works.

Kevin Miller

Kevin E. Miller is Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His BS (biochemistry and molecular biology), MA (political philosophy), and PhD (theology; dissertation: "Mercy, Justice, and Politics: John Paul II on Capital Punishment") are all from Marquette University. Besides several UFL conference papers over the years, he has contributed chapters to books on sexual morality and Catholic social thought, and published short essays, papers, and book reviews in Linacre Quarterly, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, and Communio, among other journals. In fundamental moral theology, he is especially interested in natural-law theory, virtue ethics, and the distinctively Christian contribution to moral thought. In applied moral theology, he works especially in the areas of sexual, social, and medical/health-care morality. With regard to texts/authors, he studies especially Scripture, Aquinas, Henri de Lubac, and John Paul II. His website: