Brain Death, Decapitation and Good Arguments

One of the complaints that I’ve heard made about the JME is that its papers are too short: a word limit of only 3500 words means that arguments have to undergo a process of severe shrinkage to fit, and at least sometimes don’t survive.  Sympathetic as I am to the complaint, I’m also aware that you don’t always need 20 pages to make a decent argument – and a good case in point is provided in the latest issue of the journal by Miller and Truog, whose paper “Decapitation and the Definition of Death” crams some pretty sharp argument about a subject of genuine moral concern into a very small space.

I’d almost wholeheartedly recommend the paper.  There’s just one thing I don’t understand about it: one aspect that seems to me not to belong there, and to distract from the overall quality.

The authors are considering the question of whether decapitation is a sufficient indicator of death.

[I]t may seem perfectly obvious that decapitation constitutes death and thus without need for any explanatory rationale.  However, several rationales might be provided to support this proposition.  First, it is self-evident.  Second, everyone agrees that a decapitated animal is dead.  Third, it has been universally adopted by authoritative commentators within Orthodox Judaism as an infallible sign of death.  Fourth, in view of the role of the brain in integrating the functioning of the organism as a whole, a decapitated animal without a brain is necessarily dead.  Finally, the permanent absence of consciousness signifies death of the human being, and a decapitated human body lacks the organ responsible for consciousness.

What I genuinely don’t get is the insertion of the reference to authoritative commentators within Orthodox Judaism in the paper.  The authors clearly think it’s important – important enough to merit reassertion a little later – but I’m baffled as to why.

When it comes to questions of the importance of the brain and brain function in defining death, appealing to authoritative commentators such as medics and those with a record of contributions to the philosophy of death would be fairly straightforward.  But I don’t really see how merely being an orthodox scholar of any religious tradition gives you any particular qualification to talk about the relationship between decapitation and death, so it’s not clear why these guys are picked out as being the right sort of expert.  For sure, if I want to know something about the Talmud or Torah, then I’d be well advised to have a look at the “Orthodox Jewish Scolars” listings in the Yellow Pages.  But for other things, they’d not be the obvious choice.  Working the other way, if it’s appropriate to appeal to Orthodox Jewish scholars, then why not Brahmins, Raelians, or any number of other religious authorities?

But that’d be absurd, because being a religious authority (even if we can come up with a satisfactory account of what qualifies a person as such) doesn’t generate any insight into brains or – frankly – ethics.

Miller and Truog’s move isn’t a simple appeal to authority for authority’s sake – they go on to dispute the link between decapitation and death – but they do seem to me to make such an appeal of a less simple sort all the same, just insofar as these scholars are mentioned without any obvious need.  After all, the previous clause admitted that “everyone” – which I take for the sake of the coherence of the paper to stand for “public opinion in general” – agrees on the link between decapitation and death, so the appeal to Orthodox Jewish scholars must be intended to add something to that, since such people would ordinarily simply form a small portion of “everyone”.  At the very least, I can’t help but to feel that the appeal should have been to named people, and then on the basis of certain things they’ve said, rather than merely because of their social position.  Just as it’d be unjustified to exclude someone from consideration just because he’s an Orthodox Jewish scholar, so it strikes me as being unjustified to include him just because he is.

What’ve I missed?

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