Can the Dead Be Harmed? A philosophy major reflects on a provocative question.

The dead can’t speak. But when they were alive, many planned ahead. Often their wishes for their own remains are made clear through wills or organ donation registrars.

If such desires are never met, does it matter?

Kelsey Singleton

Summer Fellow Kelsey Singleton 2013

What began as an exploration of murky territory for a Forensic Archaeology class paper has grown into a Summer Fellows research topic for Kelsey Singleton 2013. Professor Kristen Gardella first suggested posthumous rights as a topic in spring 2011. When Philosophy Professor Kelly Sorensen nudged her to expand on the research, Singleton jumped at the chance.

“I found that the law tends not to confer legal rights to the decedents themselves, but more often their survivors,” says Singleton, a philosophy major with plans to attend law school.  “Cultures, on the other hand, tend to confer rights to the dead through religious beliefs.”

The main question she is investigating is whether the dead can be harmed. Singleton, who has no belief in a posthumously enduring consciousness, is simply curious. “Most people have preferences as to how their body is handled after they die,” says Singleton, a native of Baltimore, Md. “Even if they believe that their consciousness will be completely terminated, and they won’t be in existence in any form to see their dying wishes carried out or not carried out.”

In her research, Singleton explores why people seem to have intuitive desires for what they want after they die. “If we truly have ‘posthumous interests,’ can we be harmed or benefited by having these desires either violated or satisfied?”

For instance, she says, a person’s dying wishes could be violated if his or her body were handled in a way he or she had not requested. Or, let’s say, their possessions were distributed when they never intended them to be given away. “I’ll examine exactly why and in what ways these acts constitute harm if the ante-mortem person is not present to witness them.”

The rights of the dead and questions about whether the dead can be harmed, may seem on the surface to be an unusual topic, but in reality the idea has been debated for years, says Professor Sorensen.

“Many cultures think one can desecrate a corpse, even though there’s some cultural variance about what counts as desecration,” he says. “Kelsey has a fresh take on what explains, philosophically and psychologically, our gut intuitions that one can wrong the dead – a more challenging task than may first appear. Religious metaphysics about an afterlife won’t settle the grounding problem, at least in the U.S. and some pluralist countries like it, where the law, and many ethical theories, attempt to avoid dependence on religious premises.  Kelsey plans to formulate and defend an account of posthumous harm.  Her work has implications for many substantive moral and legal issues: organ donation, organ conscription, wills and estate law.”

In addition to her philosophy courses, Singleton has sharpened her critical thinking and analytical writing in classes including Ethics, Religion and Human Rights, and Moot Court.