Do the Dead Have Rights? A Conversation with Philosopher James Stacey Taylor

Is it possible to harm dead people? Can we violate their rights after death?

These are the questions we set out to answer in our most recent Praxis philosophy night call with College of New Jersey philosophy professor and medical ethics expert Dr. James Stacey Taylor. And while the answer may seem simple to you, the question of the dead and their rights can get complicated very quickly.

Most of us have inclinations that take us in two directions.

On one hand, we usually don’t think that posthumous abuse can really harm the dead person directly. If we’re naturalists, we believe that the person no longer exists. If we’re of a religious persuasion, we usually believe that the person’s soul exists apart from the corpse.

On the other hand, though, we would be horrified if hospitals started performing experiments on the bodies of recently deceased children, let alone if they harvested organs from the dead without permission. We maintain the sanctity of graveyards, respect wills, and consider promises to the dead to be binding.

So why – despite our understanding of death – do we have an intuition that the dead have rights? Our conversation with Dr. Taylor dives into the current philosophical debate. Where we end up might surprise you.

I should warn you: Dr. Taylor is no stranger to extreme thought experiments and pointed ethicist humor. He will say some things that will outrage you, and you’ll never know if he means them seriously or jokingly. In other words, he’s the philosophy professor you’ve always wanted.

This kind of dialogue does exactly what philosophical conversation should do – make people uncomfortable. While I don’t know if I agree with Taylor’s thoughts fully yet (the scope of what I define as “harm” is probably bigger than the one allowed by utilitarianism), I have to admit that he put forward some really good arguments for his strong Epicurean view on death and the dead.

Enjoy! And check out Dr. Taylor’s upcoming book The Metaphysics and Ethics of Death this fall.

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James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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