How Much Does Consciousness Matter?

By now many have seen the debate or Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life and Lila Rose of Live Action took part in on the Whatever Podcast. 

Paired up with Steven Kenneth Bonnell, who goes by the stage name “Destiny”, the three participated in a panel debate on the abortion issue. 

Students for Life recently posted a clip of the debate to their social media that is worth discussing. During the exchange, Destiny made the following comment in response to remarks that abortion is a form of lethal discrimination: 

“I do discriminate against things that don’t have conscious experiences because there’s nobody being harmed. When you abort something that’s ten weeks old, you can’t speak of a person that is being harmed. It was a clump of cells and it’s gone. Just like when you stab a corpse, there is no person there that is being harmed because a conscious experience is gone.” 

It can be stated up front that it is easily obvious that Destiny has little knowledge of what he’s talking about. During the entire interaction he exhibits an increasingly smug self-assurance which communicates a mentality of “This is the way things are, and you must be either stupid or evil to disagree with me.” Throughout the exchange he constantly tries to talk fast and throw out complicated ideas in an effort to overwhelm his opponents, then use the time they take to nuance and explain their views as an opportunity to brow-beat them with more questions he is obviously not seeking honest answers to.

First, when a critic uses this approach, it’s obvious you are not dealing with a sophisticated thinker, but instead are more likely engaging a fool who latched onto a complex idea he once heard in order to shut up his critics in an exchange. 

Kristan did a good job of poking through Destiny’s smug arrogance by highlighting the most obvious difference between the unborn and the dead is the fact that corpses are, well, dead. Corpses don’t grow and increase in complexity over time or gain the consciousness they currently lack like the unborn will; they rot. 

Due to the tempo of the debate, Kristan and Lila weren’t able to provide more of a response, but it is important for pro-lifers to be prepared to engage the sort of argument made by Destiny, as it is fairly complex and requires a bit more careful thought to understand and respond to. 

First, why should anyone believe that because the unborn lack Consciousness, it is acceptable to kill them? We get somewhat of an answer to this(more in a moment) but most often when critics raise Consciousness as a justification, they just assert that because the unborn lack consciousness, then there is nothing wrong with killing them. There is an expectation that pro-lifers should just be satisfied with the answer and move on from opposing abortion. 

Well, not so fast. We still need an explanation for why consciousness matters to begin with. Why is consciousness more relevant than any other characteristic? Why is it consciousness that determines whether or not you can be killed, and not something else, such as having a belly button that points outward rather than inwards? What about intellectual potential, desires, or some other characteristic entirely? In a video responding to Destiny’s comments, Mark Harrington and Seth Drayer of Created Equal made this very point: Why is consciousness the deciding factor in whether or not we kill someone, and not some other arbitrary difference like race? 

This garnered a host of angry responses from commenters, enraged at the comparison, which raises further questions: Why is consciousness a less arbitrary standard for deciding how we should treat people than the color of our skin? We are bothered by racism(and we ought to be bothered by it) precisely because the color we are doesn’t decide our humanity; that is something intrinsic to us. Incidentally, why is it outrageous to believe that race and consciousness are both arbitrary standards that have no bearing on how we should treat people? Abortion advocates who become irate at pro-lifers for asking this question need to honestly ask themselves if they are interested in pursuing truth, or if they are motivated by pursuing their own personal pleasures, as this is far from a rational response. 

In a similar way, the ability to exercise consciousness is also arbitrary. Consciousness comes in degrees and can differ from person to person. As Scott Klusendorf asks, how conscious do we have to be before it’s wrong to kill us? We almost never get a solid answer to this. Instead, we get more and more qualifications. Trouble is, these qualifications don’t just mean we’d get to kill the unborn, but may also kill the born if we please. 

We’re told the unborn don’t count because they are not currently conscious. Destiny made this same comment, but seems to have forgotten there is such a thing as humans who are simply “unconscious”. A boxer who is knocked unconscious lacks consciousness for a period of time, but it’s clearly wrong to kill him. People who are asleep or under anesthesia lack consciousness, but this doesn’t mean they may be treated however we may like to do so, to include killing them.

Maybe it’s not the lack of consciousness, but the temporary inability to exercise consciousness that counts. This would mean killing the unborn would be acceptable, but so would killing someone in a temporary coma, as they are temporarily unable to exercise the ability to be conscious due to an injury or disease they are in the process of recovering from. On the other hand, the unborn are not unconscious due to an accident or disease but simply due to age. Consciousness is simply not required at this point in life in order for the human being to fully flourish as a human being. 

To put it another way, the ability to read and process written communication is a uniquely human characteristic that only humans are able to accomplish, but it doesn’t follow that an infant is not fully human or intrinsically valuable because they can’t read at the stage of life they are in. It’s simply not necessary for the infant to flourish for the time being. However, if the infant never learns to read as they grow older, due to an inability to learn(such as an oppressive system which denies girls the opportunity to learn) or a disability(such as Dyslexia) this is definitely a tragic situation. A dog that never learns to read is not tragic; a child who doesn’t learn to read is a tragedy to be corrected. 

Similarly, a human who is not currently conscious due to age is not an anomaly or subhuman. They simply lack the function temporarily. A human who never fully gains their consciousness due to disease or injury is a tragedy because we recognize they have lost something we believe they are entitled to as a human being. This raises another question.

If the lack of consciousness is what makes it acceptable to kill someone, then what is wrong with creating human beings who lack consciousness for use in our own ends? As Francis Beckwith asks, suppose a doctor surgically alters the brain of a developing embryo so that they never achieve consciousness after birth. Shortly after they are born, scientists kill the newborn baby and harvest their organs and tissues for use by those on the donor waiting list. 

Is there something wrong with this? Most people would say yes, there is something intuitively wrong about this sort of practice; it seems intuitive to say you shouldn’t deny a human being something they are entitled to according to their human nature. If that’s the case, then consciousness is not the reason it’s wrong to kill someone, or albeit, the only reason. 

Let’s take it a step further. Suppose instead of harvesting the infants organs, we put them on life support, and provide the nutrients needed to continue growing and developing after birth, until they reach maturity. Then, we market the body as an “Organic Sex Robot” to be used for sexual pleasure by adults. According to Destiny’s contention that we may discriminate against humans who lack consciousness, it’s hard to come up with a reason why this is specifically wrong. 

We recognize something is very, very wrong with this sort of a practice. Human beings, regardless of their ability to exercise consciousness, are clearly not tools to be used by others for their own ends. 

However, if this is true of human beings in general, why isn’t it true of human beings before birth in particular? 

On another note, if our consciousness is the reason it’s wrong to kill us, it doesn’t mean this is the only reason or even the best reason. As Chris Kaczor notes, a nasty caricature of an older black woman is wrong for a multitude of reasons, such as being racist, sexist, ageist, as well as being in poor taste and personally insulting towards her. Consciousness can be one of many reasons it’s wrong to kill someone. Writes Kaczor,

“There are a myriad of possible reasons to believe killing is wrong. For instance, killing takes away your present good, the good of life. Killing takes away your freedom. If killing is wrong for one of these reasons, or if killing is wrong for any other reason unconnected with some present, dispositional, or ideal desires(e.g., divine command, societal cohesion, rule-utilitarianism, Rawl’s maximum principle, contractarianism) then the suggested criterion for establishing the right to life fails…Indeed, one would have to refute Kant, Aristotle, Mill, and virtually every other philosopher who has given an account of the impermissibility of killing in order for this version of personhood to work.”(Kaczor pg. 70)

The point is, even if possessing consciousness or the neural hardware necessary in order to be conscious is a reason not to kill someone, it doesn’t follow this is the only reason it’s wrong to kill other human beings, or even the best reason. It’s not enough to assert you must have consciousness in addition to being conscious; critics(like Destiny) bear an immense burden of proof to show how being human simply isn’t enough to say we shouldn’t have been killed before birth. 

It bears mentioning there is a slightly more complicated worldview lurking underneath the appeal to consciousness known as Body-Self Dualism. Destiny hinted at this while likely not understanding the worldview or it’s implications. The view is much more complicated and deserves more than a quick bite response. 

Body-Self Dualism is the belief that the “person” in question is the subject of the Conscious experiences that occur over the course of a lifetime, such as dreams, thoughts, desires, and memories. This makes intuitive sense. Most of us would agree that the people in our lives we most care about would cease to be the same “person” if their memories, beliefs, dreams, and experiences were radically altered or ceased to be. 

Or, consider another example, articulated by Pro-Choice philosopher Jeff McMahan, perhaps one of the best defenders of the view. Suppose you go into a hospital for brain surgery, to undergo a relatively new procedure. During the procedure, neurosurgeons are able to remove your brain from your body entirely, while keeping both alive, in order to safely perform the surgery, then reattach your brain to your body so you go on living as normal. 

There is a mix-up however, and instead of your brain being returned to your body, it is instead put into the body of a 6’5 professional basketball player. However, your memories, experiences, and desires persist, so it seem to make sense to say the person who is “you” now inhabits a brand new body, one with different physical attributes, possibly different sex organs than you started with, different ways of feeling pain, and other characteristics. 

This idea isn’t entirely new, and has been explored in popular media throughout the years, both science fiction and fantasy. The movie Freaky Friday explores this concept with a mother and daughter “switching” bodies to experience life through each other’s eyes. Avatar involves space soldiers uploading their consciousness into the bodies of aliens for the purpose of gathering intelligence on the aliens during a war. Captain America: The Winter Soldier depicts the supervillain, a former Nazi Mad-Scientist, uploading his consciousness into a computer after his body dies in order to undermine world governments and instigate a hostile takeover. 

Body-Self Dualism is a popular concept in our culture, and bears implications for a variety of ethical issues today. When it comes to abortion, the Body-Self Dualist might agree with the Pro-lifer that abortion at the very least destroys a living human body, but(and Destiny mentions this) because the neural structure necessary to be a conscious subject of experiences has yet to develop, abortion doesn’t actually destroy a person like you(the reader) because you wouldn’t have existed yet in order to have your right to life violated. Therefore, abortion, while being physically destructive, is not immoral.

However, this view suffers from fatal flaws which ultimately undermine it. 

For one, Body-Self Dualism leads to bizarre and counterintuitive results if taken to it’s logical end. Body-Self Dualism would imply that “you” have never actually met anyone. You may have met bodies, but you’ve never met the people who inhabit them because they are only the subject of conscious experiences. It would also mean you’ve never hugged a single person, been embraced by a friend, shaken someone’s hand, made love with your spouse, or given birth to a child. Your body did those things, but “You” are the mental subject of the conscious experiences, not the body that engaged in those activities. 

It gets stranger. For one, consciousness isn’t fully online even at birth, but is still gradually coming online for weeks afterward(raising questions about the arbitrary nature of Destiny’s smug claim), especially with Premature infants. It makes no sense to say “I was never born, I showed up later after my body was born”. 

There’s also the problem of those with multiple personalities, called Dissociative Personality Disorder. Does it make sense to say there are multiple people residing in the same head, or that the person suffering from the disease is suffering a physical ailment to be corrected? If a doctor cures the Disorder, have several persons been killed? 

This seems unlikely. Other issues with Body-Self Dualism can be cited here, but the point is the view does a poor job of accounting for human value. There is a better alternative: The Substance view. 

In a nutshell, the Substance View holds that human beings are substances, entities who persist over time while still maintaining their essential nature as human beings. As regards prenatal human life, when a new human being comes into existence at conception, what you have is a human person who has yet to wake up as opposed to a human body yet to be inhabited by a person, person being an entity with a rational nature. A human nature is a rational nature, even if some human being don’t yet possess the ability to exercise their rational nature(due to lack of consciousness). 

If all human beings possess the same nature, then it follows that all humans are equal in virtue of their shared humanity, not something as unreliable as current ability to function.