TCNJ Magazine - Winter 2019

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39 WINTER 2019 one thing: He doesn't believe in an afterlife. "I don't have any expertise with ghosts, other than certainly a 12-year-old boy's interest in hearing ghost stories," Taylor says. "I think that people simply cease to exist when they die." Of course, Taylor adds, it's possible that ghosts exist as some form of leftover energy. "But if they do, I don't think they are conscious agents that are able to feel harm or be hurt." Which means that once they've passed on, we don't owe them anything. Because if the dead can indeed be harmed, then we'd have to take the wishes of the dead into account as well. His conclusion: "You cannot harm the dead." "IF THEY CAN BE HARMED, the living would be enthralled with the wishes of millions of past dead people," says Taylor, the author of Death, Posthumous Harm, and Bioethics. And if you really believe that the dead can be harmed, then the dead who left the earth 25,000 years ago can be harmed just as easily as those who died two years ago, he says. If that were true, according to Taylor, then we'd be obligated to adhere to the wishes of dead people. Which could cause all sorts of problems, such as being forced to adhere to religious beliefs prohibiting same-sex or mixed-race marriage … or slavery. Why should we hold such reverence for people who've been dead for centuries? Nor should we hold laws that were crafted hundreds of years ago with such reverence. Instead, he says, old laws should be revisited to make sure that they reflect the beliefs of today's citizens. Which could mean that the U.S. Constitution could get a reboot every decade or so. There is one area, though, where Taylor believes the dead matter, to a point. He's sensitive to the issue of the burial grounds of groups that have been oppressed, such as Native Americans and enslaved African Americans. Their remains should be treated with respect and consideration. "You wouldn't want to just ride roughshod over an African-American burial ground," he says. But that, too, is more about taking into consideration the wishes of those groups' descendants. "It's about expressing respect to people who are still alive. And recognizing that there were evils that happened when the dead were alive," says Taylor. Taylor is accustomed to playing the provocateur. His students, he says, are generally horrified at the thought that the dead cannot be harmed. But he says getting rid of postmortem obligations frees us up to make policies that aid the living. Case in point: There's a critical shortage of organ donors these days. To remedy that shortage, one option would be to make it mandatory for everyone to become an organ donor upon their death — creating a sort of organ conscription. Even if they were opposed to organ donation when they were alive, we are under no obligation to respect those wishes, he says. The dead don't need their organs anymore, so why not? Supply would automatically increase — although there would likely be heated protests from outraged citizens who don't want to be told what to do with their bodies once they're gone. "I would prefer to allow people to buy and sell organs," he says. Allowing a market in human kidneys, for example, would permit consenting people to secure money for things they may desperately need — such as therapy for a seriously ill child. As Taylor sees it, it's a moral imperative. Everybody wins: The organ shortage is alleviated. Hospitals would be careful about screening potential donors, to ensure that no one is being pressured to donate. And insurance companies and government regulations would set the price. The patient in need would get to live. Doctors would be paid for their services; the hospital would be paid for its services. And the person who is performing perhaps the greatest service, giving up a precious commodity — a body part — would be paid, too. (That's a notion his students can get behind, he says.) The key: Help the living lead better lives. And while Taylor and Roberts tackle the opposite ends of life's spectrum, they agree on one thing: Ultimately, our obligation is to the folks who are still with us. And in this go-go era of trigger-happy Twitter fights and partisan squabbling, slow, thoughtful philosophical analysis might be just the key to saving the planet — and ourselves. ■ Teresa Wiltz is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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