Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Where's Waldo? The ‘decapitation gambit’ and the definition of death
  1. John P Lizza
  1. Correspondence to Dr John P Lizza, Department of Philosophy, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown, PA 19530, USA; lizza{at}


The ‘decapitation gambit’ holds that, if physical decapitation normally entails the death of the human being, then physiological decapitation, evident in cases of total brain failure, entails the death of the human being. This argument has been challenged by Franklin Miller and Robert Truog, who argue that physical decapitation does not necessarily entail the death of human beings and that therefore, by analogy, artificially sustained human bodies with total brain failure are living human beings. They thus challenge the current neurological criterion for determining death and argue for a return to the traditional criterion of the irreversible loss of circulation and respiration. In this paper, I defend the decapitation gambit and total brain failure as a criterion for determining death against Miller and Truog's criticism.

  • Death
  • decapitation
  • brain death
  • defining death
  • end of life
  • definition/determination of death
  • donation/procurement of organs/tissues
  • embryos and fetuses
  • euthanasia
  • moral and religious aspects

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Linked Articles

  • The concise argument
    D J C Wilkinson

Other content recommended for you