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The aim of this research paper is to show the complexity and different levels of understanding death. The use of this term shows us that the meaning of death depends on other elusive concepts, like “harm,” “experience of,” and analogous concepts. The paper will not consider clinical or biological death nor the euthanasia dilemma. Also the paper emphasizes the historical background of death as human phenomena and elaborates its ethical implications in the ﬁeld of bioethics.
The main theme of this research paper is to show how the concept of death assumes in man – symbolic animal – a perspective that goes beyond the biological matter of death. This has repercussions for the so-called therapeutic obstination or dysthanasia and implies a relation with “a person’s dignity” since it manipulates and dehumanizes the “moment” of death which is ethically unacceptable.
The questions that frequently come up as a consequence of the latter are, among others, does respect for human life demand the application of indiscriminate therapies or, on the contrary, may the patient be allowed to die according to his or her personal circumstances? What criteria, if any, will let us take an ethical decision when we face this dilemma?
Outline And Problem Statement Since The History Of Thought Began
The nature of death is in relation with life. There is a mental experiment written by Steven Luper that describes this relationship:
It is not easy to clarify the nature of life. Suppose we could construct a machine, the HAL 1.01, with (nearly) all of the psychological attributes of persons: would HAL 1.01 be alive? Probably not, given the nature of HAL’s hardware. It seems that being conscious does not entail being alive. Still, to the extent that we are puzzled about the nature of life, we will be puzzled about what is entailed by the ending of life, that is, death (Luper 2014).
The last example shows us the difﬁculty of explaining accurately the delimitation of life, both in its beginning or in its end. This conceptual problem has been a matter of concern through all human history.
In ancient times, death was considered something “natural”: the patient died at home surrounded by his loved ones and family. This event was lived on a regular basis which allowed the closing of natural cycles. While today the attention to those dying has become medicalized, sometimes to a dehumanizing degree: one dies alone and abandoned in hospitals. Death, an undeniable fact in man, is now hidden and institutionalized due to the fear and frustration it produces.
In reality, the conception of death in different cultures has been quite diverse. Stated in other terms, a “sole attitude” toward death has never been discovered:
It can be said that virtually all that can be imagined about death has already been imagined. This means that all theories.. . with almost total certainty can be illustrated and exempliﬁed. Thus, the explanation of the phenomenon relative to the beliefs and practices related with death that are carried out, for example in terms of alienation, compensation, projection, social order, individual fear, transfer.. . do not compete with one another but instead are complementary. (Bowker 1996, p. 43).
Here we are thinking about certain common attitudes toward death in a time when the intervention upon life has become technologized, especially in the Western world. Therefore, the notion of “natural death” is not spontaneous. Some cultures have never considered death something “natural” (Bowker 1996, p. 47), and it is there, where the idea of death as something antinatural is exposed from the primitive cultures to our day and age (Aries 1977, 484 ff). Therefore, it is very common that philosophers have adopted different positions throughout history.
In Plato’s Dialogues, in particular in Phaedo, Socrates deﬁnes not only the existence of a life after death but, above all, explains the meaning of a death that today we would call a “digniﬁed death” related with to the way in which the person has lived, as well as the way in which he lives his own death. In Socrates’ particular case, it is not linked to a human law, or in a more exact sense according to the dialogue, out of to the laws of the city.
This is to say, the idea as such is not regarding the moment of death but the “approximation” we have with that moment. Thus, the philosophers of stoicism and those of epicureanism assumed in this manner the problem.
Epicure, for example, pointed out in the Letter to Menoeceus:
…death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation [it]; .. . . . . . [This] makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. .. .. Foolish, is the person who fears death, not because pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect.. . . (Epicure 2000, p. 1)
This passage has raised a great amount of discussion about its plausibility. Some of the actual discussion goes around attitudes toward the real or ﬁctional harm, i.e., if it is true, that death could cause to man. With this question, we accept death in general, although the personal experience is not transferable.
The philosopher Heidegger when developing his phenomenology of death will insist on the impossibility of experimenting it as such that we cannot:
‘be one with the dead’ since the dead person is no longer ‘there’, and he is not factually the same person. As ‘To be with’ always means ‘to be one with the other in the same world.’ The dead person has left behind our ‘world’.. . death is constructed, without a doubt, as a loss, but it is really a loss that is experimented by those that survive the dead person. The loss in itself that is suffered by the one who dies is not accessible. We do not experiment, in a genuine sense, the death of others, but at most we limit ourselves to assist to its occurrence. (Heidegger 1971, p. 261).
Main Issue: The Meaning Of Death
Usually the meaning of death is explained with empirical data. As explained in the previous section, the feelings of dying cannot be described as we have not lived yet that experience. Statistical data point out that a large number of deaths occur in hospitals; they also point to the isolation that often occurs in the intensive care units of hospitals.
Since the 1970s, medicine has very quickly incorporated impressive technological advances. The intensive care units (ICU) and the actual methods of invasive therapies have introduced sophisticated procedures that permit the evaluation and control of different vital variables, offering health-care professionals the possibility of postponing the moment of death. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the estimated time for the occurrence of death after the diagnosis of a serious disease was 5 days; toward the end of the century, that period had been extended at least ten times.
Now, taking into account historic approximations, what are the essential features (or metaphysical) that are set forth by the meaning of death?
Let us try to explain with the argument of a paradox that even if it is difﬁcult to ﬁnd the meaning of a state, not experimented before it comes to an irreversible experience, after which we will be unable to share with others, yet it is possible to infer those features:
- If it turns out that death is an untransferable and uncommunicable experience, it is not describable by ordinary language.
- If it is not describable by ordinary language, then we cannot establish any essential feature.
- If it is an untransferable and uncommunicable experience, then we cannot establish any essential feature.
The best answer for the syllogism is that since such an experience is not possible to describe (or, in other words, it is a “mystery” until the moment comes to experiment it), nonetheless we can make a distinction in the ﬁrst premise: it is true that no one can describe the experience of death as a personal experience, but through analogy, and via a negative stance, we can describe certain features of death as human “nonlife” and from life itself; we can understand the effects of the possibility and certitude of death among us.
Essential Contents Of Life And Death
Death is a solitude and rupture. Death recognizes that one dies alone. It’s not possible to share the experience – even when dying together – that is to say, side by side (as is the case in war) since it is always the experience of “being alone.” This is reﬂected even in religious literature, as in the book of Job (7, 21) when it says: “For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.” (.. .) “Only a few years will pass before I take the path of no return” (16, 22). Therefore, death is not only the ﬁnal limit of existence but also an incommunicable experience and, for that, something of profound solitude.
Death is a true liberating act that we cannot decide (referring to natural death) when and where it will take place such as in the act of being born, but we can chose to continue living (Basave 1983, p. 53). We can also accept to keep on living but modulating the moment or certain circumstances surrounding our death. In fact, this possibility of choosing the moment of death, some of its circumstances, or the provision of measures that others must take when the moment is at hand rise up ethical questions that are not easily resolved such as euthanasia, assisted suicide, terminal sedation, anticipated directives, the medicalization of death, dysthanasia, the living testament, and the commercialization of human organs. The ethical questions that arise from these themes all revolve around a common axis: the perception of human nature. This concept takes us to consider the bodily existence with a naturalist perspective (Cresson 1907; Habermas 2006) or as a limited continuum of extension and functions, but whose ﬁnal objective transcends the limits of its bodily state.
In the same manner, death is an act of congruency; we die or we look to die according to what we think is to live more in tune with our own world view. A religious man tries to wait for the moment according to his own expectations, while an indifferent man or an atheist will face another scheme of thought. In the same way, once the process of the terminal illness has begun, people live those moments as they have lived: with fear or with peace, with anger or with gratitude, and with sorrow for the ones left or with solitude.
To know that existence will end, we have to recognize that each person is unique before one’s own mortal experience. Before the reality of death, and in any moment of life not only in the moment of agony, death confronts us with our own identity. In other words, we are communitarian creatures but individual reality is better perceived from death’s perspective.
Since death is an always tense and disconcerting possibility, the risk of loss of health balance (organic, emotional, etc.) makes us more human, or better said, we recognize ourselves as humans because we can visualize the horizon of the ﬁnal limit of our existence.
The latter helps us to understand that, even if it is a paradox, having an inevitable existential limit, brings forth and fuels a vocation, a calling to do “something” with our lives. The limiting horizon of death tells us that we have to take advantage of life and make it an interminable project; one that is in constant realization. Ironically, not knowing when we will die (with rare exceptions) prompts us to not stop in life.
Some Ethical Issues
The temptation of simulating that we don’t want to think about death or to remember that one day it will happen prompts ethical dilemmas about “what to do with our lives.”
In Gulliver’s Travels a hypothetical argument is stated with great wit concerning how an interminable life would be (in the trip to the country of Laputa). Here Gulliver, upon learning of the existence of some immortal citizens, points out:
Happy nation, where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal! … But happiest, beyond all comparison, are those excellent struldbrugs [the immortal citizens], who, being born exempt from that universal calamity of human nature, have their minds free and disengaged, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehensions of death! (Swift 2013, p. 245).
But when Gulliver ﬁnds out that eternal life has disadvantages, such as losing physical conditions, as well as watching the beloved ones die, and even having the impossibility of keeping their properties forever, as mentioned in the story, it can be very inconvenient. He points out:
The reader will easily believe, that from what I had heard and seen, my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing visions .. ..; and thought no tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with pleasure, from such a life. (Swift 2013, p. 255).
That is to say, death acts as a sense catalysis: one cannot dispose of all the time, nor all the energy to ﬁnish everything, but only a part of it, and that confers sense and esteem to life and projects.
Another element to consider is that one’s own death is seen as a limit which exceeds one’s own existence. This is to say, we don’t carry out a vocation or a project only to conclude them, but we recognize that such vocation will always be unﬁnished work. Finishing a book drives us to write another, to “take advantage of time” knowing that no one will end the sea of possibilities. Nonetheless, this does not deplete the vocation but instead drives it to try to complete itself constantly. Even on a different ontological level, this can be observed in the activities pertaining to knowledge or crafts as well as human professions.
In sum, the meaning of death is life itself, even though the experience of personal mortality is not accessible to us. In a more concrete manner, death as an experience and human reﬂection is not only the mere fact of its occurrence, but the horizon that crosses through our whole existence. From there we derive the ethical challenges that can be summed up in a question: what aspects that give sense to our lives can be organized without harming someone else’s project?
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- Bowker, J. (1996). Los signiﬁcados de la muerte. London: Cambridge University Press.
- Cresson, A. (1907). Les bases de la philosophie naturaliste. Paris: Félix Alcan Ed.
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- Heidegger, M. (1971). El ser y el tiempo. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
- Luper, S. (2014). “Death,” The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, (Winter 2014 Edition). In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), URL http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/ entries/death/. Accesed 15 Apr 2015.
- Swift, J. (2013). Gulliver’s travels. Start Classics Publishing LCC. https://www.scribd.com/book/234158166/ Gulliver-s-Travels
- The Holy Bible. New international version. (2011). Book of Job 7: 21 and 16:22.
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