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Towards a theory of moral status of the dead and its contribution to medical research and learning: the case of unclaimed cadavers.

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Most, if not all, human cultures consider dead human bodies to be deserving of moral respect. The same moral attitude is generally absent regarding dead animal bodies. In a trade-off situation involving the stark choice of driving over either a dead human or animal body, most would venture that it is more morally permissible to drive over the dead animal body than the human one. Some may even think that it is more morally permissible to drive over a living animal than over an already dead human body. The prevailing moral intuition seems to be that we owe dead human bodies some ineliminable moral respect. If the above claim concerning attitudes towards dead human bodies is true, then it suggests that our traditional and extant cultures tend to assume that dead human bodies have moral status. This research is motivated by the observation that this moral intuition has not been subjected to any extensive and expansive philosophical scrutiny directed at justifying or rejecting it. The research aims to speak to this theoretical gap and to investigate whether we have direct duties towards dead human bodies. To pursue this philosophical investigation, I rely on the idea of moral status. The term ‘moral status’ is a technical one used broadly in moral philosophy – specifically in bioethics and environmental ethics – to refer to the value of beings towards which we have direct moral duties. The task of this research is to investigate whether extant influential secular and religious moral theories such as Utilitarianism, Christian ethics, Confucian ethics, and so on, have the resources to account for this intuition. This study also reflects on the implication for bioethics or medical ethics of the question of the moral status of dead bodies. Medical schools, for example, tend to use unclaimed cadavers for research. This research investigates the moral permissibility of using unclaimed cadavers for medical training and research in medical institutions. Ultimately, I argue that dead bodies have no intrinsic value or dignity, and hence that we do not owe them any direct duties. This conclusion further implies that it is morally permissible to use unclaimed cadavers for medical research and learning.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.