Monday, September 14, 2015

Consciousness and morality

In his brilliant book, ‘Consciousness and the brain,’ Stanislas Dehaene gives an overview of neurological processes that give rise to consciousness. He uses the definition of consciousness I like and, generally, I agree with everything he has to say (especially with his critique of the grotesque modern philosophical theories of consciousness towards the end of the book). But there is one exception. In chapter 7, he unfortunately delves into a morality-related topic and seems to make a tacit assumption that virtually everybody else makes as well. And this is an assumption I do not like.

The question is: ‘is infanticide morally justified?’ The quoted argument in favor is: “The fact that a being is (…) a member of species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness (…). Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.” Dehaene strongly criticizes this point of view: “Such assertions are preposterous for many reasons. (…) Although the infant mind remains a vast terra incognita, behavior, anatomy, and brain imaging can provide much information about conscious states. (…) We can now safely conclude that conscious access exists in babies as in adults (…)” (p. 236-243)

Let us take a step back to see what is going on here. We see two people arguing if a thing (an infant in this case) deserves protection as an object of moral behavior (let us quickly explain the notion of 'object of moral behavior': e.g. unlike humans, cockroaches are not objects of morality so we can kill them with no remorse). Both sides tacitly agree that a thing qualifies as an object of moral behavior if it has certain characteristics of an adult human being and that it does not qualify as an object of moral behavior if it does not have these characteristics. Both sides tacitly agree that these characteristics revolve around mental capabilities of a healthy human adult and gravitate towards something that both sides call consciousness. What the sides disagree upon is whether a particular class of things (infants) has consciousness or not. I side with Dehaene that babies have consciousness, because philosophers whom he cites, as it often happens to philosophers, seem to have no idea what they are talking about. However, it may surprise you that who I side with is actually irrelevant.  

Connecting consciousness with morality seems to be very popular. As I wrote in my previous post, vegetarians often use the argument that animals are ‘conscious’ to propose that it is immoral to kill them. We can also see it in the debates about consciousness, maintaining life-support for vegetative-state patients, etc. However, virtually never, a person making such claims explains why consciousness is the necessary and sufficient condition to become an object of morality. And this omission goes unnoticed. Everybody in these discussions seems to be in tacit agreement that this is the way to go: you are conscious – you deserve a right to live, you are not conscious – you can be treated instrumentally. (In some other debates the question is whether the thing in question is capable of ‘suffering’ or ‘feeling’ rather than being conscious, I do not want to go too deep in the nuance here, because it is irrelevant.)

Why is consciousness the necessary and sufficient condition to become an object of morality? Why is it inherently wrong to kill a conscious being? If you read my previous essay, you probably know the answers to these questions. There is nothing objectively wrong in killing a conscious being, whatever the definition of consciousness might be. It is subjectively wrong from the point of view of the members of the Homo sapiens species, because they (we) are hardwired to perceive it as wrong. In other words, we have an evolved intuition that killing something that has consciousness is wrong because Mother Nature hardwired us not to kill each other. But she did not care to make the emotional mechanisms precise enough to spare us the ongoing confusion. Whatever works is good enough.

The battle described at the beginning of this essay can be deciphered in the following way. The two gentlemen have a certain concept (consciousness) whose perception is hardwired in their brains to activate the ‘I care’ system. The two gentlemen then argue whether a certain stimulus (a baby) should be associated with this concept (and thus activate the system). But both of them skip the question whether this setup with the concept of consciousness invoking morality makes sense at all. None of the gentlemen makes any arguments about objective – as opposed to emotional – reasons to kill or not to kill infants.

Do such objective reasons exist? It may be surprising and depressing for some people to learn that our intuitions about the world, including the dearest and most deeply held feelings, are the works of natural selection and are imprecise products of technological trade-offs that often lead us astray. Our intuitions worked well to propel us to the status of the dominant species on the planet Earth (in a sense that we technically have power to destroy virtually all other species) but they also very efficiently generate confusion when we try to understand the nature of reality. Using intuition is not a pathway to truth. Rationality is.

But if we eliminate our intuitions as a source of morality, what are we left with? Can we answer the question ‘is it okay to murder babies?’ Can we even answer the question ‘is it okay to murder another human being?’ Can we build a rational argument that is completely independent of our hardwired intuitions, is fully rational, and provides guidance for the decisions we must constantly make? Finally, if we ever encounter more intellectually advanced aliens, who do not rely on their instincts like we do, what kind of morality should we expect from them?

Maybe it is possible to answer these questions in a meaningful way. But this is a topic for a separate post. Stay tuned. 

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