Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 255–264 | Cite as

Dementia, identity and the role of friends

  • Christopher Cowley
Scientific Contribution


Ronald Dworkin (1993) introduced the example of Margo, who was so severely demented that she could not recognise any family or friends, and could not remember anything of her life. At the same time, however, she seemed full of childish delight. Dworkin also imagines that, before her dementia, Margo signed an advance refusal of life-saving treatment. Now severely demented, she develops pneumonia, easy to treat, but lethal if untreated. Dworkin argues that the advance refusal ought to be heeded and Margo be allowed to die of that pneumonia, on the basis that the prior refusal expresses her true wishes (her ‘critical interests’). In this paper I want to challenge Dworkin’s understanding of identity and his conclusion about advance refusals, and I develop my argument in two directions. First, I argue that the demented Margo is not some ‘lesser’ version of the ‘true’ Margo, but instead that the present Margo’s wishes should take precedence over those of the past Margo, on the grounds that all of us are entitled to change our minds. Second, I argue for a stronger role for friends and family members in sustaining the demented Margo’s identity through her years of decline. Based on this, I argue for a presumption against the advance refusal, but I allow that in extreme cases (which I describe), a friend might have the authority to demand that it be heeded.


Dementia Personal identity Friendship Advance directives 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PhilosophyUniversity College DublinDublin 4Ireland

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