Responding to Arguments from Consciousness

How  conscious do we need to be in order to have a right to not be killed? 

Very often during discussions surrounding abortion, it is common for critics of the pro-life view to mention that the unborn don’t qualify as fully human because they lack consciousness. Because the unborn are not conscious yet, any “rights” they may have don’t supersede those of fully conscious adults who may be hindered by the unborn. 

For many pro-lifers, this can be a seemingly immense hurdle to overcome, as the issue of consciousness delves deep into serious philosophical matters surrounding the nature of the mind. Most pro-life advocates are not experts in moral philosophy of mind, and may feel daunted by the task of having to defend our views when confronted with the issue of consciousness. In contrast, it is becoming more and more popular for pro-choice activists to throw consciousness into a conversation as a sort of end-all solution to the debate. 

It should be a relief to know that one doesn’t need a PhD in philosophy to be able to clearly respond to arguments made online or in person based on consciousness. Instead, one simply needs some proper clarity when it comes to the issue. 

First, it should be mentioned up front that there are typically two types of critics of the pro-life position: Those seeking answers, and those seeking excuses. While people may vary in their motivations, generally critics fall into one of two categories. 

A conversation with a college student recently drove this point home. During our discussion, he mentioned that even if the unborn are human in one sense, they lack consciousness, and shouldn’t override the rights of actual people who do possess consciousness.

I decided to push back. “Tell me, why does consciousness matter to begin with? And how much consciousness do you need in order to not be killed?” 

He paused, and said that consciousness mattered because it means one is aware of themselves being harmed. Fair enough, but why does that matter? Why do I need to be aware of being harmed in order for it to be wrong to harm me? Identity theft is a case in point. If my identity is stolen and used for immoral ends(such as financial fraud), I may be unaware of it for the rest of my life, but there clearly is something wrong with it. Or, if I have a winning lottery ticket in my possession without knowing it, but it is secretly switched by my friend who knows that it is a winning ticket for one that he knows has lost, something wrong has clearly been done, even if I never find out about the switch. 

Conscious awareness of harm cannot account for every wrongful act, as the two above examples show. Moreover, when it comes to killing, being consciously aware of being harmed doesn’t give us a reason to reject killing as wrong, as everyone can clearly recognize that there are unconscious humans it is wrong to kill(for instance, people sleeping, people in drug-induced comas, people with temporary lack of consciousness due to an injury). 

Typically at this point, some critics will shift their claim to say that these cases clearly don’t count against their view because all of the individuals in these cases have already been conscious and deserve human rights as a result. Well, so what? Why does that matter? Additionally, how long does one have to be conscious at a previous time in order to count now? Francis Beckwith raises an example of a pair of twins who are born. The first twin, who we will call Tommy, is immediately comatose upon being born, while his twin sister, Sally, gains consciousness for a brief period(say, a half hour) before slipping into a coma just like her brother. If previously having consciousness matters, then Sally probably cannot be killed but Tommy could be. This doesn’t make sense. Now, suppose Tommy did gain consciousness, but only for five minutes, while Sally was Conscious for several days. Does that change things? 

Clearly not, and while it doesn’t settle the other ethical questions in the scenario, it does show that the shifting of definitions of consciousness is not going to get the critic off the hook.

During my conversation with the student, I raised another scenario proposed by Beckwith: Suppose for a moment that due to advances in CRISPR gene-editing technology that a doctor can modify a developing embryonic human so that they never attain consciousness, even after birth. We let a few years pass by, and decide to harvest their organs. Is there anything wrong with this? 

The student was appalled, and responded “Of course there is! You took away their life!” To which I responded “You’re right, but isn’t it interesting that if we killed them outright instead of simply preventing them from becoming conscious, you didn’t see an issue with that?” The student was thoughtful and acknowledged that this was a good point, but said he was still struggling with some aspects of abortion. Fair enough, but lack of consciousness should be off the table as a valid reason for abortion. 

Moreover, let’s assume for the sake of argument that consciousness is a valid reason it is wrong to kill adults like us, but that this is not the case for the unborn. Is our consciousness the only reason it’s wrong to kill us? 

Clearly not. An action can be wrong for a multitude of reasons. As Chris Kaczor notes, making a nasty caricature of a black woman is wrong on multiple counts. It can be racist, sexist, libelous(if it’s targeting a certain individual) in poor taste, and problematic for other reasons as well. Similarly, killing can be wrong for more than just one reason. As Kaczor also notes, if someone is going to say that possessing consciousness is what makes it wrong to kill you or me, then that person is going to have to say that philosophers that have argued killing is wrong for other reasons for the past two and a half millennium are all incorrect. This is nearly impossible. It allows doesn’t rule out the wrongness of killing the unborn. Sure, maybe it isn’t wrong to kill the unborn through abortion because they aren’t conscious(and again, the critic still needs to establish why consciousness even matters to begin with), but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be wrong to kill the unborn for different reasons entirely. Maybe killing the unborn is still wrong because it denies them a future like ours, or because it permanently precludes them from flourishing as human, or because humans are fundamentally equal and shouldn’t be denied equal treatment or respect in law. 

Consciousness is also a poor way of determining human value. If we root human value in our ability to exercise consciousness, then we are stuck with the result that some humans are innately superior to others. The reason is that consciousness is not a trait that all humans share equally. Humans tend to gain consciousness as they age, starting in the womb and gradually increasing through the course of brain development, before consciousness may begin to decline due to the onset of aging or diseases(such as Alzheimer’s). Consciousness can also vary due to other factors such as drug use or mental health. A drug user who gets put into a psychotic state due to using crystal meth still possesses a right to not be unjustly killed even if they lack all conscious awareness during their high, as does a person in a temporary coma that is due to a head-injury. 

While conscious states may vary, human nature doesn’t. Someone is either human or they are not. Humans have a human nature, meaning an immaterial self that is naturally oriented towards human attributes as opposed to, say, a dog nature. A dog that doesn’t learn how to bark is still a dog even if it has failed to achieve a characteristic we associate with dogs, whereas we don’t express concern at a human who doesn’t learn to bark, as we recognize it is not within human nature to do so. Conversely, a dog that never learns to read is not a tragic case, while a child who never learns to read is a tragic case, one that effort should be given toward correcting. 

It is also helpful to point out that while consciousness is a human characteristic, it is not what makes us human. We aren’t human because we are conscious. We become conscious because we are human; because we possess a human nature that is geared towards producing consciousness. And because we possess this nature from the time we begin to exist within the womb, it is our nature to be human before we are born. This also means that human nature is a better source to ground our convictions that humans should be treated equally.

There is a caveat here. Some people who raise the consciousness issue are not making an observation about human value but about human existence. Because I am conscious, it is assumed that my consciousness must actually be me. Because I have thoughts, dreams, desires, and am aware of myself as an entity, then it seems to follow that before my brain had developed to the point of my mental state existing, I must have not existed yet. Thus, while abortion may have destroyed a human body that belongs to me, *I* did not exist yet in order to be harmed by abortion, so abortion would have done no wrong. 

This is a popular worldview in the culture today called Body-Self Dualism, and it is a worldview that helps drive many of the hot-button issues in the culture today, particularly abortion. Pro-lifers must try to understand the worldviews that cause abortion to make sense if we are to change minds. While responses have been written elsewhere, two problems with Body-Self Dualism are worth mentioning. 

First, it leads to absurdities. Think about it for just a moment: My body existed before I did? This would mean a few things. For one, I would never have been born. My body was, but I didn’t come along until later. It would also mean that *I* have never been hugged, never been touched, and never eaten a good meal, because *I* am solely the collection of my mental faculties produced by my brain, simply inhabiting my body. This seems ridiculous, and it makes more sense to say that I have done those things because I am an embodied being, not merely mental faculties inhabiting a body. 

It would also mean that curing a person with multiple personalities is tantamount to homicide as it would destroy one or more individuals inhabiting the same body at the same time, a concept that is also absurd.  A person with multiple personalities is suffering a form of illness and needs to receive treatment, rather than simply sharing the same place with several other individuals. 

In conclusion, consciousness arguments are not the end all to the abortion issue and shouldn’t frighten pro-life advocates. Most of the time, some clarity and well-placed questions are all it takes to clear up confusion with questioners and to poke through a critic’s smokescreen. 

Helpful resources:

Defending Life by Francis J. Beckwith

The Ethics of Abortion 3rd ed. by Christopher Kaczor

Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics by Robert George and Patrick Lee

Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing by Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis