Suppose a pagan society that considers it an ethical obligation to worship as a god anything that is considered enduring, and include in this category material and immaterial things; and they are morally required to despise anything that's a not-god. A missionary comes along and says: "No, what a god really is, is something enduring and immaterial." This shift keeps things stable for things that are enduring and immaterial; but it leaves us completely in the dark about the things that are enduring and material. For it will only follow that the pagans should despise these (newly designated) non-gods if the principles behind their despising of non-gods before still apply to everything that is considered a non-god now. It doesn't follow from the shift itself that they do; the original principles may be some of the things that rationally need to be shifted in light of this shift in what is considered a god. Work needs to be done to determine how they should deal with non-gods now that things have move. Do the same principles apply? Does there need to be significant revisions of principles (e.g., if some of them were based entirely on the enduring criterion)? Should some principles be replaced? Should a distinction be instituted between non-gods who are enduring and non-gods who are not enduring, with differences in behavior toward each? The new definitions tell us nothing about these things.The question we have to ask, in order to respond to this analogy, is does it hold? I think the answer is no. The problem with the analogy lies in the situation as it is prior to the arrival of the missionary. A better analogy would be this:
Suppose a pagan society that considers it an ethical obligation to worship as a god anything that is considered enduring and immaterial, and they are morally required to despise anything that is not-god.The arrival of the missionary must be changed as well. When the missionary arrives, he says, “No, what a god really is, is something enduring, be it material or immaterial.”
This is, in fact, what I think Brandon is doing by stating that a body with no mind, no psychological states, in essence, is still “alive.” In doing so, I think he has done what the missionary does in the revised analogy: stretched the concept of “living” to a whole new category of being: bodies without personhood.
In response to my poor expression of this counterargument in comments, Brandon wrote:
I am very puzzled as to what you mean by saying you haven't changed the boundaries. Surely you don't mean that it has always been essential to our view of personhood that it cuts off when the higher brain shuts down? As I noted, I don't think it is the case that our ethical topoi on personhood themselves have ever precisely delimited a cut-off point (although various cut-off points have been proposed as wyas of delimiting where the ethical topoi apply); all they do is give us something to work with on the person side of the divide, wherever we happen to put it.But I don't think it's the case that we have never had a preciseily delimited cut-off point for personhood. In fact, I think that traditionally, both materialist and non-materialist concepts of personhood have rested on the presence of a mind, be it in the form of a working brain or the presence of a soul. While I can't really address arguments that a soul may still be present in a body that is brain dead, because I myself am working within a materialist framework, I think that my view, rather than Brandon's, is consistent with traditional materialist concepts of personhood, because it limits personhood to cases in which the properties that we attribute to souls or materialistic minds (brains) are present.
I also think it is more consistent with traditional boundaries of life and death. It is true that medicine has, for some time, used non-brain criteria for determining death, but this is an artifact of the times. Throughout most of medical history, the technology required to determine when the brain is dead simply has not been present. However, this does not mean that medical professionals or laymen have considered the boundary between life and death to be defined by the presence of breathing or a heartbeat. It simply means that they have used those as measures for whether a person was still alive, because they were the best measures available.
To see the unnaturalness of the alternative to the higher-brain death view, consider the following scenario. A person's entire brain is dead (in other words, both the fore and hind-brain), but through artificial means, we are able to keep the heart beating, to keep oxygen in the blood, the digestive system working, etc. In other words, we have a case like that of Terri Schiavo, or others in persistent or permanent vegetative states, but with a dead hind-brain. Is this person's body alive? What if it is impossible to make the lungs work, but we can make the heart beat and digestive system work, and put oxygen into the blood artificially? What if the heart doesn't work, and the lungs don't work, but we can artificially circulate the blood with an external pump, infusing it with oxygen in the process, and the digestive system still works? What if we have to do all of these things artificially. In other words, the heart, lungs, and digestive system don't work on their own, and we must pump the blood that we have artificially infused with oxygen and the nutrients that would come from the digestive system? When do we declare death? When is the body no longer alive?
Now consider a case in which the forebrain is still working, but none of the organ systems work (i.e., we have to artificially pump the artificially nutrient and oxygen-infused blood throughout the body, including the brain). The person is no longer able to speak (if the lungs don't work, he or she won't be able to speak), but through blinking, can communicate complex messages, indicating that she is conscious of her surroundings (we don't need for the person to be conscious of her surroundings, but it helps to illustrate the contrast between the cases in the previous paragraph and this one). Is this person still alive?
I don't know about others, but my intuitions are that in the case in which the brain is dead, and the body's normal functionings are completely shut down, but can be artificially carried out, thus keeping cells alive and preventing the body from decaying as it would in "death," the body is not in fact alive. However, in the case where the body's functions have completely shut down, but can be carried out artificially, and the brain is not dead, the person is alive. I think this is what you would get with our commonplace concepts of life and death, as well. The reason is that brain life is a necessary, but not sufficient component of our concept of life and death. It makes no sense to talk of a "living body" without a living brain. However, it would make sense to say that the body kept functioning through completely artificial means is alive, so long as the brain is alive as well.
My reasons for holding the higher-brain death view are not only that I feel that it is a more natural view, consistent with our commonplace concepts of life and death as applied to human beings. Perhaps even more important are the implications of the alternative (Brandon's view, e.g.). For Brandon, it is possible that there exists human beings (e.g., Terri Schiavo) whose entirely lives are completely dependent upon the wills of other human beings. Now all of us are in some ways dependent on the wills of others, and there are some people (e.g., those with extreme disabilities) who are almost completely dependent upon the will of others, but Brandon's view creates an entire new class of individuals: those who lack both actual and potential autonomy altogether. Since these individuals have no minds, and in fact no wills as we would traditionally conceive of the concept "will," and no possibility of ever having minds or wills, their entire "lives" are dependent on the decisions and actions of others. If this doesn't create just the sort of horrific moral dilemma that Brandon is worried about, I don't know what would.
And to see just how much of a problem Brandon's new category of human persons can be, from an ethical standpoint, consider the rhetoric of Eric Cohen in a recent essay, with which Michael Bérubé has dealt masterfully in this post. In it, Cohen suggests (nay, states outright!) that there are cases, like the case of Terri Schiavo, in which individuals are not morally free to decide their own fate. In other words, even if a person, when he or she did have a mind (i.e., his or her higher brain was alive) has made a decision about how his or her body should be treated after higher-brain death, it is morally permissable for individuals (in this case, conservative lawmakers or the courts) to override that decision once the higher-brain is dead, because the person is, in that case, no longer morally free to decide his or her own fate. This view can only come about if we use a criterion for life that creates a category of individuals who are alive, but not morally free. And this is exactly the sort of ontological and ethical baggage that the higher-brain death view avoids. In short, then, rather than being ethically and philosophically more complex, the higher-brain view turns out to be simpler, and in fact less dangerous.