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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

13 - Death and killing: the quality and value of life

from Section 3 - Aging and death



In reading this chapter you will:

reflect on the nature of death;

consider the pros and cons of changing our standard of death;

consider whether ‘quality of life decisions’ should replace ‘standard of death’ decisions;

learn about the different types of euthanasia;

reflect again on our three moral theories and their views on the intentional killing of human beings;

consider whether any type of euthanasia should be legalised.

You might think that death wouldn’t change much whatever biotechnology does. But over the last 50 years advances in biotechnology have triggered a great deal of philosophical thought about death, and not just amongst philosophers.

The ‘standard‘ of death

Sixty years ago death was easily determined. Once a person had stopped breathing, had no pulse and was turning stiff and greyish-white, he was dead. If he was still breathing and had a pulse, he was alive. Implicit in this was a certain way of determining death and a certain understanding of the nature of death. The irreversible cessation of the cardiopulmonary system was the ‘standard‘ for death.

During the 1950s and ‘60s two technological advances, artificial respiration (AR) and heart transplantation, brought this standard of death into question.

During the 1950s AR made it possible for us to support the functioning of someone‘s cardiopulmonary system in the hope the heart would start beating spontaneously again. Often it did. But sometimes it quickly became clear that the patient would never again live a productive life however long – and expensively – we kept his heart pumping.

Bauby, J.D. 1997 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly New York Alfred A. Knopf
Singer, P. 1996 Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics New York St. Martin's Griffin