Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Consciousness = Personhood?

Given the impracticality of claiming a zygote is not a human, abortion proponents will typically explain that, while the zygote may be a human being, it is not a person.

What is a person?  Depends on who you ask.  Some of the most common pro-choice claims are that you are not a person unless you are viable, or you are not a person until you are physiologically independent.  I've never found these ideas remotely compelling.  However, there is one definition of personhood that has always intrigued me: consciousness.

Some people assert that our consciousness--our level of cognition--is what separates us from other species and gives us our worth.  They point out, for example, that when someone becomes brain dead--even as the rest of their body may function properly--we often consider them dead already.  Their consciousness is gone.  Some therefore assert that an embryo, which has no consciousness, is not a person either, and is therefore morally permissible to destroy.

Anytime people assert a definition of personhood that excludes the fetus (and, indeed, this seems to be the only time people distinguish "person" from "human being") I try to consider how their definition would apply to already-born people in similar circumstances.  For example, if you must be physiologically independent to be a person, humans on respirators would not be people.

So are there any examples of humans we already consider people who do not have consciousness?

Coma patients always jump to mind.  Damage to either the cerebral cortex (responsible for our awareness) or the Reticular Activating System ("RAS" - responsible for our sensory arousal) can cause a person to enter into a coma.  Whether someone recovers varies depending on how the damage was sustained and how severe it was.  In the meantime, the coma is considered a "state of profound unconsciousness."

So is a coma patient a "person"?  Seems to me the answer to that question depends on whether the coma patient has a chance of recovery.  If a patient has a high chance of recovery, society still considers that patient a person.  If the patient becomes brain dead, there are those who argue the patient is no longer a person anyway.

This implies that the personhood of the coma patient rests on their future ability to have full consciousness.  The same can be said of the zygote.  Both the coma patient and the zygote are human; neither have consciousness.

I suppose the question is, then, what is the significant moral difference (if any) between a human being that will develop consciousness and a human being that will regain consciousness?  What do you think?


Anonymous said...

The general counter-argument to this is that someone is a coma had consciousness and preferences prior to their current state, while a fetus does not. It is a complex argument, but it is refuted in chapter one of Charles Camosy's new book on Peter Singer

Anonymous said...

I think the plan of the person with intent to kill is to dehumanize, then kill, in order to achieve the killer's own agenda. Salve for their own conscious and such.

Simon said...

A very complex issue

Something Ray Dennehey said to me

"But there is no logical or ontological reason why a fetus can't be a person and not yet have reached the stage of development where it can perform the functions we associate with personhood. To borrow from Schwarz, they fail to distinguish between "being a person" and "functioning as a person." Put in other terms, the debate over fetal personhood is really a version of the classic debate of substance vs. function. In the order of discovery, function comes first because it's the observation of how a being functions that allows us to infer what it is. But in the order of reality, substance has priority because what a thing is determines how it functions"

I've yet to find a good paper that ties it all together.

James Camosy does raise it in the 2nd chapter
Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization saying its concerns 'involving the distinction that Aristotle and Thomas made between “active” and “passive” potential. "

Anyone have access to a copy?

Anonymous said...

If you think that something with no consciousness is a person, try caring for a family member with alzheimers and let us know how that experience works out for you. Tell us about how thier dwindling mental capacity reminds you of the way you've always remembered them and that they died as the person you'd always remembered. Go on, do it.

enness said...

Anonymous 1: I have trouble seeing what prior state has to do with current state. It seems to me the only difference is that we haven't gotten a chance to like and recall the fetus's personality yet. (Perhaps I've misinterpreted and that is the exact point you intended to make.)

Anonymous 3, that response seems tinged with personal emotion...not just your run-of-the-mill theoretical scenario. I can understand that and will bear it in mind. I nevertheless have to ask why you describe a person with Alzheimer's as having *no* consciousness, rather than a kind of altered consciousness? Perhaps we are confusing consciousness with awareness or recognition. I wonder what one of my heroes, Dr. Sacks (who, as you may know, worked with patients who appeared "frozen" and was instrumental in their treatment with the medication L-dopa), would have to say about this?

I once heard a story, maybe true or maybe not, about a man who cared for his wife in this exact situation; one of the nurses remarked about his tenderness with someone who didn't even know who he was anymore. The impact line is his response, "She doesn't know who I am, but I know who she is." Is the kernel of truth in that story that many of them continue doing it for this reason, in spite of the grief it brings them and the seeming futility?

I'd also like to point out what I was initially going to, before I read the comments: that there really seems to be a lack of healthy respect for what we still do not know about the brain. I wish I could find where I saved the link right now, but I could point to recent experiments that have apparently found unprecedented signs of response in patients previously thought to be in PVS. What stunned me most was a brief mention in the article that the researchers were unable to register a response in three (out of about 20, I believe) individuals from the normal, healthy control group. Shouldn't we be erring on the side of caution no matter what stage of life is in question?

Kara Beaner said...

I just had this conversation with a staunch pro-choicer. He asked how one could equate something with no "interests, beliefs thoughts or aspirations for the future" as someone not deserving of personhood. I rejected that an embryo has no interests (to live), and then brought up the cases of post-born humans who also lacked those other qualifications.

His response to that was unfortunately to change the question we were discussing. That is, he stopped arguing the concept that an embryo is not a person, and instead suggested that while other human beings who lack thoughts, beliefs or aspirations for the future, they are not physically dependent on another person, thus making it okay to destroy the embryo, and not the coma patient.

There are two questions here that I think, when required, pro-choicers mush into one, "Is it okay to kill and embryo if it benefits a human?".

The first actual question is: "Is an embryo a human?" (to which I say yes. to which pro-choicers will often say no) and "Is it okay to kill a human if it benefits another human?" (which most people will reply with no if you have not provided the context of abortion) When you have established that their reasons for calling an embryo a non-human are extremely subjective, they will revert back to that original question, "is it okay to kill an embryo if it benefits a human?" rather than take that potential line of thought, that an embryo is a human, and insert it into the second question.

Anonymous said...

"But there is no logical or ontological reason why a fetus can't be a person and not yet have reached the stage of development where it can perform the functions we associate with personhood"

Yes there is, for appropriate (and, I would argue, normal) definitions of "person".

Wat said...

There's a difference between saying "you're not the person I remembered" and saying "you're not a person at all."

Anonymous said...

You don't sound like you've ever had to take care of somebody in the late stages of alzheimers.

They die before they're dead, if you can fathom that for a moment. Perhaps there's more to life than the viability of your chemical processes.

Anonymous said...

I assume you think contraception is ok? If yes this means you draw your line for meaningful life at conception.
Many pro choicers, myself included, draw the line at consciousness. You cannot defend your position unless you hold some of the same beliefs.

For example there is no potentially argument that does not apply to an unfertilised egg.

Now let's take identical twins and a unique embryo. The identical twins do not have unique DNA but do have consciousness. The embryo has unique DNA but no consciousness. In my world the twins are people where as the embryo is not. It COULD become a person, it could become 2 people, it could become no people. But then so could an egg.

Pervis Dirt said...

You're wrong man! It's alive! therefore it's human because it has HUMAN DNA! BAM SCIENCE YOU'VE JUST BEEN REFUTED LOGICALLY. SUCK IT LIBS.

SPLASH said...

Sure, but the question is whether the moral status that one affords a person ought to be afforded to an entity which is developing into a person. From a philosophical perspective, personhood does need a functional definition, but that doesn't tell us what to do about the moral status associated with it.

SPLASH said...

That misses the point because the person with Alzheimer's is expected to deteriorate. If your relative with Alzheimer's was expected to remain sick for a time, and then make a full recovery, that would be analogous.

SPLASH said...

"there is no potentially argument that does not apply to an unfertilised egg"

Sure there is. It depends on what you mean by potential. There's a very weak sense, as in "Buy a raffle ticket; every one is a potential winner of the grand prize." Of course, there's only the potential for there to be one winner, but there's a sense in which every entrant is a potential winner regardless of the number of entrants.

There are stronger forms of potential, such as, this savings bond will potentially pay a 100% dividend if you wait 5 years to cash it. That's the sense we're interested in. You use the ambiguous word 'potential', but I think that the better term is 'capacity'. The bond will pay that return *unless* something happens to prevent it.

Another example would be saying that someone is potentially a President of the United States. You could find a bright and inquisitive ten year old and say that potentially he/she could be president when he grows up. You could also point to the President Elect following the election but before the inauguration and say that he is the potential POTUS. The second sense is the one which pro-lifers are concerned about: capacity. It's what the embryo has and the ovum lacks.

M said...

Excellent analogies. I've never seen it put that way before.

Would you be interested in incorporating these ideas into a short guest blog post? If so, please email me at

156 said...

"...when someone becomes brain dead--even as the rest of their body may function properly--we often consider them dead already."

Why did you include the "often" qualifier? My understanding is that all states in the United States, through statute, define brain death as death in all cases.

"Some therefore assert that an embryo, which has no consciousness, is not
a person either, and is therefore morally permissible to destroy."

You are incorrectly assuming that the law considers dead people to be non-persons. In actuality, the law considers dead people to be persons with enforceable rights. For example, wills are legally binding.

156 said...

"Coma patients always jump to mind."

Death is defined as irreversible cessation of brain function, not merely cessation of brain function or cessation of consciousness. Therefore, to the extent that the definition of death is the rationale for using consciousness as defining life, coma patients are not a valid example. Moreover, if you read those definitions carefully, you will see that a coma is a lowered state of consciousness, not a complete lack of consciousness.

156 said...

I have long advocated defining life, for legal purposes, as an existing capacity for consciousness. No other definition seems to make much sense.

Whenever someone argues that we should treat life as beginning at fertilization, I always ask that person for his or her definition of life. I have received a number of different responses, all of which have led me to conclude that the person was dictated the belief from a religious organization rather than derived it from careful thought and study.

For example, some such people have responded by unfriending me from Facebook.

Others seem completely mystified by the question, as though they have never given the question any thought. But if you have no notion of the concept of life, then how could you have possibly come to an independent, thoughtful, evidence-based conclusion about when it begins?

The question is very problematic for people who believes that life begins at conception because they have great difficulty deriving an answer that is broad enough to include newly-fertilized eggs yet narrow enough to exclude heart transplant donors or even some dead bodies. Another problem is that any definition that includes newly-fertilized eggs has difficulty providing a satisfactory answer to the question of when a miscarried embryo dies. If death is the loss of brain function, and an embryo never has brain function, then exactly what would constitute death for a miscarried embryo?

The most ambitious attempts at defining the term life tend to focus on the potential of the unborn. The result is a two-pronged definition -- a human must have a complete set of human DNA and must have a future potential for brain function. The strikes me as awkward and too genes-based.

Barry G said...

Yes, the idea of an assessment of permanence is crucial for person hood. Detractors will say this amounts to equating potential for some trait with having that trait, which offends their consistency sensibilities. But morality at it simplest is assessing the consequences of our actions and we are capable of assessing such consequences by understanding their implications on the future. Why we should not use this ability and instead rely on a snapshot of what something is only right here and only right now is beyond me.

156 said...

What do you mean?

Barry G said...

I mean that if the moral question is "Is it permissible to kill X?" Then it is better to ask "is X's state of unconsciousness permanent?" than to ask "Is X unconscious now?"

156 said...

"I mean that if the moral question is 'Is it permissible to kill X?'"

You are assuming that X is alive, which neither you nor the original article established.

156 said...

"But morality at it simplest is assessing the consequences of our actions..."

To which specific consequentialist moral system do you adhere?

Dark Cyberian Knight said...

I would support the choice of feeding and housing the coma patient to some degree but I would not force it on another individual I might force it on the state.