Skip to content

Consciousness and death’s badness

1. Many think that the wrongness of killing has at least partly to do with the harm and/or badness of death. I assume that is right.

2. Many think that the harm and/or badness of death has primarily to do with the deprivation of a future. In particular, many think that the future contains valuable experiences and states of affairs, and that death robs an entity of experiencing or otherwise attaining these valuable things. Although there are different ways of making explicit how a future is valuable, I assume that the general idea is right.

3. The value in the future is prima facie problematic for those who find abortion permissible. Fetuses seem to have valuable futures. If so, then at the very least there is a (potentially defeasible) moral reason against killing a fetus (cf. Marquis 1989).

4. A response to this line of reasoning can be found in a much-discussed theory of death’s badness, the time-relative interests account (McMahan 2002; DeGrazia 2003, 2007). This account builds a discounting mechanism into the value of an entity’s future. It is not just any future that is valuable, but the part of the entity’s future with which the entity is psychologically connected. To the extent that some entity lacks psychological connections with her future – connections supplied by things like memories, actions and plans in progress, the persistence of values, character traits, and so on – the value of that entity’s future is discounted.

An application to the wrongness of killing a fetus is this. A fetus, we might assert, lacks strong psychological connections with its future. As a result, the badness of a fetus’s death is steeply discounted, and so too is the wrongness of killing a fetus.

5. This line of reasoning has potentially disastrous consequences. As many have noted, it looks like the steep discounts that apply to the wrongness of killing a fetus also apply to the wrongness of killing an infant. Both a fetus and an infant fail to possess much that allows relevant psychological connections to be formed and maintained. Indeed, it looks like the time-relative interests account has trouble accommodating the thought that fetuses or infants are entities in the relevant sense – entities whose future matters morally. This is because fetuses and infants lack the psychological sophistication necessary for having a future. If this is right, then the time-relative interests account makes abortion morally permissible by totally undermining the moral status of fetuses from moral consideration, and doing so in a way that also totally undermines the moral status of infants.[1]

6. One might try to supplement the time-relative interests account by acknowledging an additional source of moral importance. The source I have in mind does not have to do with the future, but with the nature and structure of the entity’s present psychological life. We might say that if an entity is psychologically sophisticated enough to qualify as a conscious entity, then the entity acquires additional moral importance. Perhaps the importance acquired is enough to render the killing of this entity impermissible (in at least most circumstances).

Why accept this suggestion? It is worth noting that the suggestion runs against the grain of much discussion regarding death’s badness in one important respect. Much of this discussion treats death’s badness as something that accrues, via the harm done to an entity. This is a natural way to think of harm, especially once issues are framed, as they often are here, in terms of the value of the future. But other ways of thinking of death’s badness are available. On the above suggestion, we might think of death’s badness by analogy with the badness of the destruction of a great work of art. The value of a work of art may increase over time, and in this way perhaps the harm done by destroying a great work of art accrues over time. But one reason great art’s destruction is bad is simply that the existence of a great work of art is valuable, and removing the art from existence removes a locus of value from existence. Perhaps the possession of a conscious mental life is valuable in a similar way. To possess a conscious mental life is to be a locus of value.

Suppose, momentarily, that an entity’s possession of a conscious mental life is enough to make the killing of that entity prima facie impermissible. If so, we can maintain a strong reason against infanticide, and maintain that this reason does not apply to a wide class of fetuses – those incapable of consciousness (e.g., those younger than 26 weeks or so, see Lagercrantz and Changeux 2009).[2] And we can do all this while retaining a central insight of the time-relative interests account, namely, that it captures important ways that death can be bad.

7. One might worry that this suggestion is no supplement to the time-relative interests account, but is rather a reason to reject it. Here is a way to put the worry. It is unclear how valuable is the possession of a conscious mental life. Now, if qualification as a conscious entity is not enough to render killing of an entity (at least prima facie) impermissible, then we are stuck with the possible permissibility of infanticide (according to the time-relative interests account). And if qualification as a conscious entity is enough to render killing impermissible, why do we need the time-relative interests account? This account no longer looks like an exclusive account of the nature of death’s harmfulness.

Should proponents of the time-relative interests account be worried? Some who talk of the harm of death and the wrongness of killing pit the time-relative interests account against competitors, as though uncovering the truth were a matter of finding out which account wins. Dialectically, this is an effective way to examine disputes on relevant issues. But it should be acknowledged that dialectical effectiveness has its limits. If our goal is to uncover and illuminate all of the considerations relevant to the badness of death and the wrongness of killing, it might be better to start with the thought that death can be bad in a wide range of ways[3], and move towards an attempt to elucidate these ways and how they make contact with considerations that bear on the wrongness of killing.

8. It remains, then, to make the suggestion clear enough to accept. The suggestion, recall, is this: an entity’s possession of a conscious mental life is enough to make the killing of that entity prima facie impermissible, and that it is possible to understand the value of possessing a conscious mental life without reference to the valuable future conscious beings might possess.

I find the suggestion intuitive. But I am not sure whether we should accept it. This is because clarifying and investigating this suggestion will take quite a lot of work.

Often those against abortion argue that abortion of at least late-term fetuses is wrong because such fetuses are conscious. (Often these arguments are tied to the capacity of a fetus to feel pain, however, which is not the same as the suggestion I am making.) Indeed, one might argue that this kind of view differs only slightly from the view of the most prominent proponent of the time-relative interests account, Jeff McMahan. On McMahan’s (2002) two-tiered account of the wrongness of killing, the wrongness of killing persons differs in a fundamental way from the wrongness of killing non-persons. While the wrongness of the latter has only to do with the deprivation of a valuable future, the wrongness of the former has to do with a requirement of respect for persons. For McMahan, what grounds this requirement is a certain set of psychological capacities: “in particular . . . [the] possession of certain higher psychological capacities that distinguish [persons] from animals” (2002, 243). One difference between the suggestion offered here and McMahan’s view is, then, that the suggestion emphasizes the respect-requiring moral significance of entities that possess a conscious mental life, rather than, as McMahan does, of entities that are more psychologically sophisticated.

Why prefer an emphasis on possession of a conscious mental life, rather than an emphasis on possession of higher psychological capacities? The issues involved in answering this question are quite complex. Much ground clearing is required.

In part, this is because the reference to consciousness here is ambiguous. At the very least, we might be referring to self-consciousness, to access-consciousness, or to phenomenal consciousness. All have been put forward as morally significant forms of consciousness, and it is at present unclear what differences in moral significance may obtain between them.[4] Moreover, at least regarding self-consciousness and access consciousness, it is commonly thought that these come in degrees. It is possible to have more access consciousness, and higher forms of self-consciousness. Why privilege one level of consciousness over others?

Once we make a distinction, a similar issue arises with respect to phenomenal consciousness. We can distinguish between phenomenal consciousness as a determinable of conscious states, and all the ways this determinable might be made determinate. Phenomenally conscious states can be determinates of the relevant determinable in a wide range of ways: phenomenal consciousness is a complex phenomenon. It includes perceptual states of varying modalities, as well as cognitive and agentive states that, arguably, serve to add richness and complexity to an entity’s mental life. What are we saying when we say that phenomenal consciousness is morally significant? We might be saying that the possession of any phenomenal state is significant, or that the possession of some class of phenomenal states in particular is significant. And it is possible that it is not consciousness alone that adds moral significance to an entity, but rather consciousness of a certain degree of complexity. What forms of conscious mental life are the morally significant ones, and why?

A further difficulty has to do with the theoretical consequences of ascribing moral status to the possession of consciousness. To take the most obvious potential consequence of the above suggestion, one might worry that in granting a conscious mental life – or a conscious mental life of at least the richness and complexity possessed by infants – so much moral significance, one grants moral significance to far too many animals. Perhaps this is a legitimate worry: certainly a full account of the moral significance of consciousness needs to take non-human animals into account. However, it is worth noting that I am here suggesting only that an entity’s possession of a conscious mental life may make killing that entity prima facie impermissible. It may be that in some or even many circumstances, there are good reasons to kill non-human animals. That we have the same reason to respect some non-human animals as we do human infants (and perhaps late-term fetuses) does not screen off the influence of other reasons for action towards these entities. Perhaps we have stronger reasons against killing many animals than many people think. Perhaps we need stronger reasons in favor of killing animals than many people think. And perhaps these are strengths of the suggestion on offer, rather than bullets to bite. At present, of course, whether this is true remains an outstanding question.



Bermûdez, J.L. 1996. The moral significance of birth. Ethics 106(2): 378-403.

DeGrazia, D. 2003. Identity, killing, and the boundaries of our existence. Philosophy and Public Affairs 31: 413-442.

DeGrazia, D. 2007. The harm of death, time-relative interests, and abortion. Philosophy Forum 31: 57-80.

Kahane, G. and Savulescu, J. 2009. Brain damage and the moral significance of consciousness. Journal of Medical Philosophy 34(1): 6-26.

Marquis, D. 1989. Why abortion is immoral. Journal of Philosophy 86(4): 183-202.

McMahan, J. 2002. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lagercrantz, H. and Changeux, J.-P. 2009. The emergence of human consciousness: From fetal to neonatal life. Pediatric Research 65(3): 255-260.

Levy, N. 2014. The value of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 21(1-2): 127-138.

[1] Proponents of the time-relative interests account might deny this (cf. McMahan 2002, 343). But whether a denial is plausible is an empirical matter. And it is hard to see a plausible empirical case for a denial, simply because the psychological connections of which an infant is capable – e.g., fairly basic learning of connections in the environment – are also those of which a late-term fetus is capable.

[2] What we ought to say about the killing of late-term fetuses is left open.

[3] A point thoroughly illustrated by the complex discussion in McMahan 2002, chapter 2.

[4] For self-consciousness, see Bermudez (1996). For access consciousness, see Levy (2014). For phenomenal consciousness, see Kahane and Savulescu (2009).

Share on

7 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you, Joshua, for this interesting post. You raise a lot of issues, too many to respond to in a short comment, but I would like to question your first assumptions and make a further general point.

    I can agree that “the wrongness of killing has at least *partly* to do with the harm and/or badness of death …. and the deprivation of a future”, but the link seems to me to be far from direct. An illustration : most of us consider that death at 90 years old is less “harmful” than death at 25. But I doubt that anyone would argue that killing a 90 year-old was less reprehensible than killing a 25 year-old, even though the latter has a longer potential future of which he is being deprived. In time of war, killing the former would be probably be considered worse – for, I guess, a whole set of reasons. Indeed the whole business of war is about killing young adults. (I’m not aware that all philosophers are pacifists who argue that in all circumstances killing is wrong.)

    This makes me wonder whether the whole business of trying to draw exact boundaries around a topic is worthwhile or indeed possible. Taking your example of abortion and the problems of discriminating it from infanticide, I would argue that trying to find watertight criteria is a chimera. This is not a counsel of despair or nihilism : the boundary between India and Pakistan is disputed, but nevertheless no-one argues that Delhi is in Pakistan.

    1. Anthony,

      Thanks for your comment. I think you are right about the implication regarding killing the old vs. killing the young. This is one of McMahan’s motivations for moving to a two-tiered account of killing’s wrongness, and it is part of my motivation for thinking about killing a conscious being via analogy with destroying a work of art.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Joshua.
        I’m not so sure about the analogy on accrual with a work of art. First, because I don’t agree that a work increases in value over time. It may increase in *price*, but I don’t think that this is the same thing. Perhaps you mean, alternatively, that a work may become recognised to have real value instead of being dismissed as worthless : but again, I’m not at all sure that there is any increase in value – merely a late appreciation of this value. Nor that the harm in destroying it accrues over time.
        Secondly, I don’t see how the notion of accrual helps your argument : wouldn’t it imply that killing those will accrue more, (on whatever criteria we would use to decide this) is worse than killing those who may accrue less ? Which seems a rather repugnant conclusion.
        But in a way I like the art analogy : its value is sui generis, just as is the value of a human life : it doesn’t need justifying through external terms. But this may be a long way from current utilitarian views …..

  2. Sorry, I left a word out. Should read “…. imply that killing those *who* will accrue more….”

  3. Perhaps (probably) I was not clear enough. The analogy with art was supposed to signal a move away from thinking of the badness of death as merely a matter of a loss that accrues.

  4. Joshua,

    There is another strain of thought to the badness of death other than the deprivation of future. Typically, badness is associated with pain. Additionally its considered moral to take actions that do not cause oneself or others pain. (All of this can be explained in great more detail, but the general concept should be clear enough to stand on it own here.)

    In the view of badness being much the same as pain, late fetus abortion takes on a clear definition of badness with or without the consideration of consciousness. Consciousness however gains significance in this use of badness due to its relevance to pain. As individuals become more conscious, more self aware, and develop higher psychological abilities they have a greater ability to experience pain. This capacity for pain is not linked only to the anticipation and experience of their own death. It can be linked to the death of others, even non-conscious beings.

    For example: if you were to kill an isolated dog, the immorality of the act would lie in the pain caused the dog.
    If you were to kill a wild dog, the immorality would be the pain caused the dog, and the pained caused the dog’s pack. This pain however would be bond to the pack’s cogitative ability to understand the killed dog is gone and to lament the killed dogs absence.
    If you were to kill my dog, their would be the pain to the dog, the pain of my anticipating or being surprised by his death, and the pain of my lamentation of my dog. This pain is much greater than the packs because my higher cognitive ability. I can remember the dog in greater detail. I can even imagine scenarios of my dog still being alive.
    All three example involve the death of a dog, but their badness varies with the level of pain and the ability to perceive that pain.

    What I’m arguing is that the badness of death is not linked with the possession of consciousness, but the ability of that death to cause a perceivable amount of pain.
    I’ll leave you a question. Suppose a woman unaware of her week old pregnancy gets into a bike accident and loses the baby. Now neither she, the baby, nor anybody in the world is aware of the baby’s death and they never will be aware. How bad is the baby’s death? How bad would the baby’s death be if the mom knew she was pregnant?

Comments are closed.