Fall 2012

You Only Die Once: Why Brain Death is Not the Death of a Human Being; A Reply to Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

D. Alan Shewmon

[My argument] has revealed the total absence of any compelling philosophical or scientific reason to interpret brain-mediated somatic integration as constitutive of the human organism; all the evidence is compatible with, indeed, positively suggests, the conclusion that brainmediated somatic integration maintains the organism’s health or promotes its survival, but does not constitute it as a living whole in the first place. By the same token, there is absolutely no compelling philosophical or scientific reason to suppose that brain death, however total and irreversible, is ipso facto the death of a human being as such . . .

[The] accusation that I am in conflict with Church teaching about death relies . . . not only on a mischaracterization of my position, but also on a mischaracterization of Church teaching itself. In point of fact, the Magisterium does not formally oblige us to hold that the brain is the master organ of somatic integration, or that its death is therefore the death of the human being as such. Nor does the hylemorphism espoused by Boethius, Aquinas, and the Council of Vienne entail any such claim.

1. Introduction


In “You Only Die Twice,”2 bioethicist Nicholas Tonti-Filippini seeks to draw a line in the sand against the rising tide of what he calls the “mentalist view” of death,3 which “argues in effect that when a human being ceases to be able to function at those higher levels of activity that we consider human or even sentient life, then the person has died even if the body continues to function.”4 As an alternative to mentalism, Tonti-Filippini defends a mainstream integrationist version of brain death as the criterion for determining when a human organism has died. Since, Tonti-Filippini argues, bodily integration is mediated by the endocrine and nervous systems, and since both depend on brain function, total irreversible loss of brain function eo ipso results in loss of bodily integration and, therefore, in the death of the human organism: The brain is “essential for integration of the body and without it the parts of the body cease to be an integrated whole.”5

Tonti-Filippini regards the integrationist account of brain death as the centerpiece of an empirically airtight case against mentalism, but he also insists on its compatibility with Church teaching, in particular with that of “the Council of Vienne, which, following Boethius and Aquinas, adopted the notion of the unity of the human person with the soul as the substantial form of the body.”6 Indeed, Tonti-Filippini even goes so far as to suggest that in recent times the account of brain death that he favors has been endorsed by the Church’s Magisterium in the person of Pope John Paul II.7

1. I wish to thank the staff of Communio for their assistance in editing the present article. The editors’ help in giving more precise expression to some of my philosophical ideas is especially appreciated. I am also indebted to Prof. Josef Seifert for illuminating comments in the preparation of the manuscript.

2. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, “You Only Die Twice: Augustine, Aquinas, the Council of Vienne, and Death by the Brain Criterion,” Communio: International Catholic Review 38 (Summer 2011): 308–25.

3. Ibid., 308.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 313.

6. Ibid., 311.

7. Ibid., 313.