What Does a Definition of Death Do?

Main Article Content

Laura Specker Sullivan


In his article, “Defining Death: Beyond Biology,” John Lizza argues in favor of a civil definition of death, according to which the potential for consciousness and social interaction marks us as the “kind of being that we are.” In this commentary, I critically discuss this approach to the bioethical debate on the definition of death. I question whether Lizza’s account is based on a full recognition of the “practical, moral, religious, philosophical, and cultural considerations” at play in this debate. I further propose that a truly ethical debate on definitions of death ought to concentrate on how different definitions of death are used in diverse contexts – what definitions of death do – and focus less on who has the right definition of death for all situations.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
SULLIVAN, L. S. What Does a Definition of Death Do?. Diametros, v. 55, n. 55, p. 63-67, 31 Mar. 2018.
Special Topic – Defining Death: Beyond Biology
Author Biography

Laura Specker Sullivan, Harvard Medical School

Laura Specker Sullivan, PhD
Center for Bioethics
Harvard Medical School
641 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

E-mail: Laura_SpeckerSullivan@hms.harvard.edu

Share |


Chiong W. (2005), “Brain Death Without Definitions,” Hastings Center Report 35 (6): 25–30.

Elliott C. (1999), A Philosophical Disease: Bioethics, Culture, and Identity, Routledge, New York.

Lizza J.P. (2018), “Defining Death: Beyond Biology,” Diametros 55: 1–19.

Lock M. (2002), Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death, University of California Press, Berkeley.

McMahan J. (2006), “An Alternative to Brain Death,” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 34 (1): 44–48.

Truog R., Miller F. (2014), “Changing the Conversation about Brain Death,” The American Journal of Bioethics 14 (8): 9–14.

Truog R. (2006), “Brain Death – Too Flawed to Endure, to Ingrained to Abandon,” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 35 (2): 273–281.