What’s Good for Them? Best Interests and Severe Disorders of Consciousness

In Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Finding Consciousness: The Neuroscience, Ethics, and Law of Severe Brain Damage. Oxford University Press USA. pp. 180-206 (2016)
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I consider the current best interests of patients who were once thought to be either completely unaware (to be in PVS) or only minimally aware (MCS), but who, because of advanced fMRI studies, we now suspect have much more “going on” inside their minds, despite no ability to communicate with the world. My goal in this chapter is twofold: (1) to set out and defend a framework that I think should always guide thinking about the best interests of highly cognitively compromised patients, and then (2) to defend a particular conclusion that applies to this specific patient population. The framework requires us to ask two questions: Is the individual suffering? Is the individual gaining any benefit from life? There must be benefit of some sort for life to be worth preserving, and the benefit must outweigh any suffering (if there is suffering present). I then argue it would be best overall to allow these patients to die. Either these patients are not really very aware at all, in which case they are most likely not suffering, but not benefiting from life either, or they are mentally intact enough to make benefit a theoretical possibility, but in fact they are not benefiting because they cannot communicate with anyone. Such patients would most likely suffer. As there is no way currently to address their suffering, we should allow them to die. No matter the truth about their cognitive lives, death would either be a neutral event, or a blessing.

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Jennifer Hawkins
Duke University


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