DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 29, 2023, from

1. Analysis of death versus criterion of death

The most fundamental philosophical question about death is the question concerning its nature or essence – ‘What is death?’. When philosophers offer answers to this question, they may be said to be defining death. It is important to recognize that two distinct projects may be confused under the single name ‘defining death’. The first is a project in conceptual analysis which tries to give an account of the nature of death. Since death is the event that takes place when an organism dies, one way to explain the nature of death would be to formulate a definition of ‘x dies at t’. If successful, such a definition would tell us what we mean when we say that something dies, and thus reveal the nature of death. Among the most popular proposals is:

  • (D1) x dies at t =df. x ceases to be alive at t

A definition of this sort is successful if it is true. A fully adequate definition of death would display the structure of the concept of death.

The second (or ‘criterial’) project is one of public policy. For many practical purposes, it is important to have agreement on the question of whether a person is dead or alive. Furthermore, for practical purposes, it is important that there should be agreement about the time of death. Even if we agreed that (D1) is true, we might still be in grave doubt about whether certain people are dead. For example, consider a person whose brain has been irreparably destroyed in an accident, but whose blood is being oxygenated and circulated by life-support mechanisms. Since it is unclear whether people such as this have ceased to be alive, it is unclear whether they are dead. Those who engage in the criterial project try to formulate a criterion of human death that is relatively easy to apply. Such a criterion would pick out an observable change that occurs around the time on which most would agree that humans die. The proposal would then be that this change (for example, cessation of electrical activity in the brain, cessation of respiration, cessation of heartbeat, and so on) should be taken to be the legal mark of death. If the proposal were accepted, then medical personnel and undertakers, among others, could appeal to this criterion as a legal defence.

Conceptual analysis would yield a necessary truth about the structure of the concept of death. The search for such analyses fits into a philosophical tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle. It resembles attempts to analyse such concepts as knowledge, causation, goodness and truth, so the analytical project is classically philosophical. The criterial project, if successful, would lead to a contingently useful criterion of human death. If it were accepted by the courts, it might remain in use for decades (until medical technology made it obsolete). But at best it would be a contingent principle with just temporary and practical value. The project itself requires knowledge of medical details and legal precedents, but does not seem to be a project for which philosophers are especially well qualified.

Citing this article:
Feldman, Fred. Analysis of death versus criterion of death. Death, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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