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Self-consciousness and moral status

Many share an intuition that self-consciousness is highly morally significant. Some hold that self-consciousness significantly enhances an entity’s moral status. Others hold self-consciousness underwrites the attribution of so-called personhood (or full moral status) to self-conscious entities. On such views, self-consciousness is highly morally significant: the fact that an entity is self-conscious generates strong moral reasons to treat that entity in certain ways (reasons that, for example, make killing such entities a very serious matter).

Why believe that?

There are a number of arguments worth considering. Here I consider Michael Tooley’s well-known argument from interests, and a similar argument due to Peter Singer. Tooley (1972) wishes to defend what he calls the self-consciousness requirement:


An organism possesses a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity. (44)


Here is how Tooley initially argues for this claim. First, he asserts that the only individuals that possess rights are conscious individuals. Second, he asserts that the particular rights individuals possess are tied to their particular desires: “’A has a right to X’ is roughly synonymous with ‘A is the sort of thing that is a subject of experiences and other mental states, A is capable of desiring X, and if A does desire X, then others are under a prima facie obligation to refrain from actions that would deprive him of it’” (45). Third, he applies this concept of rights-possession to a right to life, which he takes to be the right to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states. So, if an individual desires to continue to live in this way, then that individual is a person – they have a right to life. Since an individual can only possess this desire if they possess a self-concept, self-consciousness is a necessary condition on personhood.

This is a coherent argument. The problem is that this argument is not sound. There is little reason to believe that the only rights we have stem from our actual desires – a stubborn four-year-old has a right to an education, and the crankiest anti-government libertarian might have a right to government-provided healthcare. So the second step is dubious. Without this step, Tooley’s argument collapses.

Tooley himself recognizes that the above argument is inadequate in several ways, and in the end requires only that one be capable of desiring that one continue to exist in order to qualify as a person (cf. Tooley 1983). Why accept this claim? It is worth noting that this claim is divorced from the reasoning that initially led Tooley to privilege self-consciousness. That reasoning depended on the view that particular desires create particular rights. If I desire A, I thereby have prima facie rights – rights against actions that would prevent the satisfaction of this desire. However, Tooley has given us no reason to believe the principle he now needs – that the capacity to desire A generates prima facie rights against actions that would prevent its satisfaction. And in general, there is no good reason to believe this principle. That I have the capacity to desire a weekend in snowy Oslo does not generate a prima facie obligation, on anyone’s part, that they refrain from actions that would prevent my satisfaction of this potential desire.

There is a further problem with Tooley’s revised view. Tooley recognizes the point I made above, that one might retain a right absent the existence of a particular desire. But he only recognizes a few conditions under which one would retain a right in the absence of an actual desire.


[A]n individual’s right to X can be violated not only when he desires X, but also when he would now desire X were it not for one of the following: (i) he is in an emotionally unbalanced state; (ii) he is temporarily unconscious; (iii) he has been conditioned to desire the absence of X. (48)


Notice that conditions (i) or (iii) appear to emanate in part from an assumption that the desire to continue to exist is necessarily rational. But this motivation is unacceptable. It is not always irrational to desire to die: one can desire to die, or lack a desire to continued living, without being emotionally imbalanced or subject to untoward conditioning. Tooley’s argument fails.


An argument in the vicinity of Tooley’s survives. Peter Singer reasons – on behalf of the preference utilitarian – as follows:


For preference utilitarians, taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being, because persons are highly future-oriented in their preferences. To kill a person is therefore, normally, to violate not just one but a wide range of the most central and significant preferences a being can have . . . In contrast, beings that cannot see themselves as beings with a future do not have any preferences about their own future existence. This is not to deny that such beings might struggle against a situation in which their lives are in danger, as a fish struggles to get free of the barbed hook in its mouth; but this indicates no more than a preference for the cessation of a state of affairs that causes pain or fear. The behaviour of a fish on a hook suggests a reason for not killing fish by that method but does not in itself suggest a preference utilitarian reason against killing fish by a method that brings about death instantly, without first causing pain or distress. Struggles against danger and pain do not suggest that fish are capable of preferring their own future existence to non-existence. (2011, 80)


This argument’s reliance on future-orientation is problematic. The older one gets, the less future-oriented one might become. It does not become better to kill the aged because they are less future-oriented than the young, however. Nor is it worse to kill someone who, irrationally, has desires and intentions for events 200 years hence.

Perhaps we could devise some restriction on the kinds of future-oriented preferences that are allowed to count in the preference utilitarian calculus. Even if we could, however, it is not clear that Singer’s argument requires self-consciousness. Certainly Singer gives the impression that the argument does require self-consciousness. He is here reasoning explicitly about why it might be wrong to kill a person, where personhood (Singer assumes) requires self-consciousness. Further, Singer’s reasoning seems to rely on self-consciousness in a crucial place – Singer invokes the notion of a being having a concept of its own future existence in order to explain why it might be permissible (on preference utilitarian grounds) to kill a fish painlessly.

But Singer is here explicitly concerned with interests about the distant future. For a preference utilitarian, interests (or preferences) are all that matter, and the more future-oriented you are, the more interests you might have (if you think imagining the future allows for the development of more interests). But interests about the future do not require self-consciousness. Interests about the future can be interests about the future, whether or not they are about your own future existence. I have a strong interest that a certain child succeed in whatever he chooses to do. A salmon has an interest in making it all the way up the stream. Neither of these interests need involve self-reference, or a concept of one’s own future existence. Whatever the force of Singer’s argument, it can get by without self-consciounsess.


Singer, Peter. Practical ethics, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Tooley, Michael. “Abortion and Infanticide.” Philosophy & Public Affairs (1972): 37-65.

Tooley, Michael. Abortion and infanticide. Oxford University Press, USA, 1983.

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