Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Related Topics
Defining the Beginning and End of LifeReview - Defining the Beginning and End of Life
Readings on Personal Identity and Bioethics
by John P. Lizza (Editor)
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009
Review by Roger Chao
Aug 17th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 33)

With the increasing technological innovation creating new techniques, opportunities, and abilities for the medical profession, along with this also comes new spheres of responsibility, ethical limitations, and moral dilemmas. No longer are the traditional models of personal identity or conceptions of life valid; newer and more sound explanations are needed to encompass these emerging issues. In the ever growing medical technologies sphere, some guidance is needed concerning these issues. Thus it is with this in mind, that Lizza decided to bring together a collection of articles concerning the differing conceptions of personal identity, and their effect on our understanding of when life begins and ends.

The book itself is split into 3 parts, the first dealing with theories about the nature of persons, the second dealing with how these differing perspectives on persons relate to questions of when life begins, and the third dealing with how these competing accounts of personhood define when death takes place.

Part 1 deals with differing theories and conceptions of persons from spiritualist, hylomorphic, species, functionalist, substantive, constitutive, relational, and self conscious perspectives -- all of which have influence on contemporary ontological and bioethical debates. Utilizing these theories of the nature of persons, the moral status of embryos, when a person begins, and the morality of abortion is explored in Part 2. Part 3 again uses these same theories to examine the definition of death, when a person ceases to exist, and the morality of certain end of life decisions, again showing the wide variety of disagreement within both secular and religious (Judeo-Christian) conceptions about their determinations of death.

As a survey text to highlight the diversity of secular and religious theories of personal identity in relation to the bioethical considerations of life and death, this is an OK text, much like a guide to the world's religions for the aspiring traveler; but as a text designed to inform policy and law makers on the correct course of action (and not just inform them about the diversity of opinion that exists in the community and health professionals) it is well lacking.

About half the readings in this collection are from very overtly religious positions, positing their views on the nature of persons and when life begins and ends based on the existence of the soul. Lizza justifies their pervasive inclusion because of the increasing prominence of these religious (albeit just Judeo-Christian) viewpoints in bioethical questions. However some people might find these numerous overtly religious arguments quite off putting, due to their soundness being entirely dependent on the premise that the soul actually exists. Thus, as a text designed to show the diversity of opinion surrounding these issues (much like a wide ranging stamp collection) it is a good resource, but as a philosophical text (designed to help legal and medical professionals decide the correct course of action) it is marred by its heavy reliance on religious argument.

Including a few religious perspectives on personhood, and life and death issues is fine, due to the prevalence of these views; but dedicating half the book to competing religious viewpoints is unprofessional and unwarranted for a book designed to inform policy makers and hospital ethics boards -- sectors where a secular approach is instead needed.

As a survey course it's content is passable, as it contains many of the classic seminal texts by Aquinas, Descartes, Plato etc as well as some of the more modern classic texts by Parfit and Warren. The anthology however, does lack many of the more recent developments in theories of personhood, and questions of when life begins and ends, as the majority of the readings in this text are already quite old and not abreast of recent developments in the field. There are a lot of new articles out there, which are up to date with the developing technologies and findings in medical and scientific research, as well as being considered modern classics, which could have been included but were not. As such the text itself can be seen as slightly outdated, and not in tune with the current developments in scientific and philosophical thought.

The good thing about the selection of texts is that there is a good spread of both philosophical writers and medically trainer writers (MD's, geneticists, neurologists etc). The chapter by Rosner on "The Definition of Death in Jewish Law" also is extremely enlightening, something we don't often see discussed in the mainstream literature, and thus is a great insight into Jewish perspectives on end of life decisions. However another criticism here is the total lack of inclusion of non-western, non-Judeo-Christian conceptions of personhood (or even Islamic conceptions for that matter), many of these conceptions are highly relevant today, given the wide diversity of religions in the world and thus it is a shame they were overlooked (given the books focus on religious perceptions on bioethics).

Overall as a collection of different perspectives on bioethical considerations concerning personal identity, this book does not really stand out from the crowd, not being as diverse or contemporary as many of it's rivals. As a book designed to inform policy makers and professionals making these bioethical choices/decisions it is also very lacking in philosophical rigor and contemporariness. Thus on the whole, this book does not really distinguish itself from the large number of bioethical anthologies already out there and in fact there are many better anthologies readily available that are not marred by all the flaws this collection has.


© 2010 Roger Chao


Roger Chao is a contemporary moral philosopher. His research interests include applied ethics (in all fields), moral theory, meta ethics and political philosophy.


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