Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 623–631

Revisiting the Persisting Tension Between Expert and Lay Views About Brain Death and Death Determination: A Proposal Inspired by Pragmatism



Brain death or determination of death based on the neurological criterion has been an enduring source of controversy in academic and clinical circles. The controversy chiefly concerns how death is defined, and it also bears on the justification of the proposed criteria for death determination and their interpretation. Part of the controversy on brain death and death determination stems from disputed crucial medical facts, but in this paper I formulate another hypothesis about the nature of ongoing controversies. At stake is a misunderstood relationship between, on the one hand, the nature of our lay (or our “manifest image”) views about death and, on the other hand, the nature of scientific insights (and related conceptual refinements) into death and its determination (the “scientific image”). The misunderstanding of this relationship has partly anchored the controversy and continues to fuel it. Based on a perspective inspired by pragmatism, which stresses the positive contribution of science to ethical and policy debates but also challenges different forms of scientism in science and philosophy found in foundationalist interpretations, I scrutinize three different stances regarding the relationship between lay and scientific perspectives about the definition of death: (1) foundational lay views, (2) foundational expert views, and (3) co-evolving views. I argue that only the latter is sustainable given recent challenges to foundationalist interpretations.


Brain death Death determination Ethics Pragmatism Epistemology 


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Copyright information

© Journal of Bioethical Inquiry Pty Ltd. 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Neuroethics Research UnitInstitut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM)MontréalCanada
  2. 2.Department of Medicine and Department of Social and Preventive MedicineUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada
  3. 3.Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Experimental Medicine & Biomedical Ethics UnitMcGillUniversityMontréalCanada

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