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abstract

What is death? The question is of wide-ranging practical importance because we need to be able to distinguish the living from the dead in order to treat both appropriately; specifically, the permissibility of retrieving vital organs for transplantation depends upon the potential donor's ontological status. There is a well-established and influential biological definition of death as irreversible breakdown in the functioning of the organism as a whole, but it continues to elicit disquiet and rejoinders. The central claims of this paper are that the best way to address the question as to what death is, is to attend closely to our ordinary concept of death; doing so reveals that, whilst our ordinary understanding accommodates the biological definition, it also includes the thought that, for someone who has died, there will never again be anything it is like to be that person. Support for these claims is provided, and their academic and practical implications traced. The important practical implication is that we are left in quandary as to whether certain potential organ donors — for example, anencephalic babies and the permanently vegetative — are dead, a quandary that has serious implications for the relevance of the dead donor rule in transplant ethics.