Monday, April 8, 2019

Does Consciousness Matter from an Ethical Perspective?

Consciousness is widely thought to be important, particularly from an ethical perspective. It is hard to find widespread agreement in ethics, but one relatively uncontroversial ethical fact is that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. This fact depends on consciousness. It is only if a being has the capacity for consciousness that they can actually experience pleasure or pain. According to some, this capacity — also called the capacity for sentience — is the sine qua non of moral status: all beings with this capacity have at least some moral standing.

There are also more elaborate theories of moral status that underscore the centrality of consciousness to ethical thought. For example, many people claim that “personhood” is a key property for moral status. Only persons, it is alleged, attract the highest degree of moral standing and protection. But what is personhood? There is disagreement on this, but at a minimum personhood would seem to require the continuing capacity for consciousness and self-consciousness, i.e. continued conscious awareness of yourself as a subject of experience over time.

Given this, you might think it would be pretty odd for someone question whether consciousness is ethically significant. But this is exactly what Neil Levy does in his short article ‘The Value of Consciousness’. Despite its contrarian starting point, Levy ultimately agrees that consciousness matters from an ethical perspective, but just not in the way that many people think.

Let’s see what his argument is.

1. Access Consciousness Versus Phenomenal Consciousness
Levy’s argument works off a distinction between two different kinds of consciousness: (i) phenomenal consciousness and (ii) access consciousness. This is a distinction that was first introduced by the philosopher Ned Block in his famous article “On a Confusion about a Function of Consciousness”. We can characterise the distinction in the following way:

Phenomenal Consciousness = The qualitative experiential feeling associated with being conscious (the “what-is-it-like-ness” of being conscious). This is best understood by way of example so imagine you are looking at and then eating an apple. Phenomenal consciousness is the visual experience of seeing the redness of the apple and the taste experience of its bittersweet flesh on your tongue.

Access Consciousness = The informational availability of a mental state. In other words, the capacity to access mental information and report on it, express it, manipulate it in reasoning, deliberate about it and so on. To continue the apple example, access consciousness would be the ability to talk about the experience of eating the apple, and to remember looking at and eating it at a later time.

Phenomenal consciousness is the type of consciousness that most people have in mind when they think about what it means to be conscious. But access consciousness is also important. Block introduced the distinction because he felt some scientific investigations into the nature of consciousness were conflating the two. Scientists were getting pretty good a figuring out how access consciousness worked — i.e. at how the brain made certain informational content available to the ‘person’ or ‘self’ — but not at figuring out phenomenal consciousness. The latter is the core of what David Chalmers would later call the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. To be clear, many mental states are both access conscious and phenomenally conscious. For example, the eating of the apple referred to above is something that will have a qualitative feeling associated with it and will also be available to be reported on and deliberated about. But sometimes access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness pull apart.

With this distinction in place we can reformulate the question motivating this article. Instead of asking whether consciousness matters or not, we can ask “which kind of consciousness matters, if any?”.

It’s pretty clear the most people think it is phenomenal consciousness that matters. After all, it is phenomenal consciousness that matters when it comes to the experience of pleasure and pain. Access consciousness might matter for higher levels of moral standing, as perhaps a foundation for self-consciousness and personhood, but it only matters then as an additional ingredient. It’s phenomenal consciousness that is the necessary foundation upon which moral status is built.

The philosopher Charles Siewert makes this point quite forcefully with the following thought experiment (this is my own modification of it).

Zombie: You are about to eat some revolutionary new synthetic food. The food is really tasty, but the nutritionist tells you that there is a major side effect associated with it. It is quite possible (say a 50% chance) that after eating it you will be a philosophical zombie. This means that you will lose your phenomenal consciousness and will no longer have qualitative experiences. But you will be otherwise unchanged. You will look and act like an ordinary human being. You will have access to past memories and events. You will be able to build a personal narrative about your life. Anyone interacting with you will be unable to tell the difference.

Do you want to eat the food? Well, that might depend, of course, on a number of things (e.g. how long left you have to live and how tasty the food really is) but it seems plausible to suggest that no one would want to lose phenomenal consciousness for the sake of a tasty morsel. Given the choice between living their life as normal and living it without phenomenal consciousness, it seems like most people would choose the former. Indeed, Siewert himself suggests that a life without phenomenal consciousness would be little better than death. This suggests that phenomenal consciousness is what matters most.

2. Levy’s Critique
Siewert’s thought experiment is intuitively compelling. I know I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to eat the food if it meant losing the capacity for phenomenal consciousness (though, I would add that the thought experiment depends on a practical impossibility: how could you know, beforehand, that people lose phenomenal consciousness if they continue to act as normal?). But Levy challenges it. He argues that access consciousness has a lot of value too. A life without phenomenal consciousness might be worse overall but it could still be worth living.

Levy defends this view by making a number of points. First, he argues that someone with access consciousness still has a point of view on the world. In other words, they will have certain dispositions and reactions to the world around them. They will value some things and disvalue others. They will have interests that can be thwarted or fulfilled. These mental states may all be purely functional in nature and so not associated with any phenomenal experience, but they are still real and still provide a foundation for a ‘valuing’ relationship between the person and the world around them. This is important because Levy thinks some people are too quick to deny the possibility that a person who lacks phenomenal consciousness can have a valuing relationship with the world.

Second, Levy argues that it is possible to talk meaningfully about the well-being (or welfare) of a philosophical zombie. This is true if you follow some of the classic theories of well-being. According to the desire-satisfaction theory, for example, a person’s life goes well for them if their desires are satisfied. A philosophical zombie can have desires — there is nothing in the concept of a desire to suggest that it requires phenomenal consciousness — and so their life can go better or worse depending on the number of desires they satisfy. Similarly, on an “objective list” theory of well-being, a person’s life goes well for them if they achieve certain objectively defined states of being, e.g. they are educated, their health is good, they have friends and family, they have intimate loving relationships and so on. Again there is no reason to think that a philosophical zombie cannot satisfy these conditions of well-being. Indeed, their “objective” nature makes them immune to considerations of phenomenality.

But this brings us to the potential spanner in the works. The desire-satisfaction and objective list theories of well-being are but two of the three most famous philosophical theories of well-being. The third theory is hedonism, which suggests that happiness or pleasure is the key to well-being. You might think that both happiness and pleasure are ruled out in the absence of phenomenal consciousness. Indeed, I’ve been assuming as much thus far, but Levy argues that we shouldn’t be so quick to make that assumption. He argues that genuine happiness may be possible without much (or anything) in the way of phenomenal consciousness.

He makes his case using a famous psychological case study. In some ground-breaking work, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and his colleagues discovered that people often report their highest levels of satisfaction and happiness during periods of ‘flow’. This arises when people are totally absorbed by some challenging activity. One of the noticeable things about these periods of flow is that people tend to lose the sense of themselves in these moments. That is to say, they lack self-awareness during peak flow. Their awareness is absorbed by the activity, and not by themselves nor (and this is crucial for Levy) any awareness of experiences they may be having in that moment. This is often reflected in the fact that people are unable to describe exactly what they were experiencing in the moment (though some argue that people do have phenomenal experiences in these moments but simply lack access to them).

Levy thinks this example is instructive. It suggests that happiness may be possible without phenomenal consciousness — indeed, it suggests that losing experiential awareness may be constitutive of extreme happiness.

Of course, it is not entirely clear how persuasive this is. It could be that there is a blurring of the boundaries between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness in this interpretation of flow (i.e. Levy is reading too much into the fact that people lack access consciousness to what is going on in the moment). It could also be that there is conflation of phenomenal self-consciousness (a higher order conscious awareness of the self) and phenomenal consciousness (the raw experience in the moment). Losing the conscious sense of self could well be constitutive of happiness — centuries of Buddhist thought suggests as much — but that doesn’t mean that losing all phenomenal consciousness is constitutive of happiness. It is, however, hard to disentangle all of these things because scientific inquiry into happiness can never directly access someone’s phenomenal states: it always relies on self-report.

Undeterred by all this, Levy goes on to suggest that even if phenomenal consciousness is relevant in these moments, there is evidence to suggest that happiness is often accompanied by behavioural and functional states (e.g. the figurative “jump for joy”); that these may supply some of what is needed for happiness; and that they can get overlooked in the focus on phenomenal consciousness. So, the bottom line for him is that happiness of some sort may be possible for a philosophical zombie.
This leads him to conclude that a life without phenomenal consciousness could still be worth living.

3. Conclusion and Implications
I find Levy’s argument interesting. I find it relatively persuasive to suggest that phenomenal consciousness isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to moral status and standing. The behavioural and functional aspects of consciousness can support a valuing relationship between an entity and the world around it, and provide the basis for a meaningful concept of well-being. This is true even if phenomenal consciousness also matters (or matters more).

But there is a bigger point here that overwhelms the philosophical niceties of the distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness. As he points out, phenomenal consciousness is problematic when it comes to shaping our normative behaviour. By its very nature it is private and first-personal. It is not something we can investigate or determine from a third person perspective. But since our normative duties are all determined from that perspective, it’s hard to use phenomenal consciousness as a basis for our moral norms. The only way to do it is to infer phenomenal consciousness through access consciousness. It should be reassuring then that access consciousness, by itself, provides a foundation for moral standing (if Levy is right). Levy concludes his paper by suggesting that this should affect how we think about the moral standing of animals and persons in persistent vegetative states.

This is something I very much agree with. I’ve written a few pieces in the past defending something that I call “ethical behaviourism” which argues that moral standing has to be determined by observations of behaviour. I tend to subsume within ‘behaviour’ what Levy would call access consciousness. In other words, I think that functional brain states might be included among the ‘behaviours’ that we use to determine the moral standing of another. But I am inclined toward a more extreme view which holds that behavioural states would trump functional brain states in any difficult case where the two do not seem to coincide.

Of course, a full defence of that view is a task for another day. For now, I think it suffices to say that Levy’s paper raises an important question and pursues a provocative answer to that question — one that goes against the common sense of many people.


  1. I'm not the only person who has trouble with the very idea of a p-zombie, and I don't think it does much work here. Ever since Freud we have had no problem with people acting for unconscious reasons - blameworthiness (very much related to standing) requires some kind of "access".

    More generally, if I have an eidetic memory or strong powers of visualisation, so that my recollections have a phenomenal quality that yours lack, I don't think we can make much of such a common inter-individual difference.

    1. Levy draws explicit links between his view and Freud in the paper so I think that's a good point.

      I'm not sure I follow the second point though. Is the idea that your phenomenal experiences are somehow richer and more detailed than mine, but the mere fact that they are richer and more detailed than mine doesn't make a difference when it comes to our moral standing? Or am I misunderstanding?

  2. Yes, as an attempt at a reductio wrt phenomenal consciousness and
    Siewert's wager.

    P1a. One must be sentient to have some kind of moral standing.
    P1b. Minimally, one must be able to suffer.
    P2. Suffering requires phenomenal consciousness (PC).

    C1. PC is a key feature of personhood.

    P3. Vivid access consciousness (memory, imagination) is
    experientially equivalent to (indistinguishable from) PC for
    some human, by all accounts.
    P4. For other humans, similar mental function is present
    but as a less vivid access consciousness.
    P5. Focal loss of the capacity for such experiences due to neurological
    diseases does occur, without effects on other facets of conscious experience.
    (Affected individuals notice the effect, and find it annoying and
    a loss of function).

    C2: Access and phenomenal consciousness can be
    functionally interchangeable in *particular* domains between
    persons. I think this is stronger than for perceptual faculties
    eg cortical blindness (v blindsight).

    C3: By a stepwise replacement model, it seems plausible to me that we can now
    posit being a *person* with no phenomenal experiences. Say, for example,
    this person accesses visual information about the world only via working
    or short term memory. Hey, isn't that all of us absent-minded people
    ;)? Maybe PC is incoherent? At the very least, C1 seems contestable.

    Consider suffering due to acute tissue injury, psychogenic pain, and anticipated pain, and types of consciousness in each case.

    1. I agree that PC may not be necessary for personhood, but I think that's somewhat from whether it is sufficient for moral standing (and/or very important for moral standing). Also, I have no idea whether PC is possible in the absence of AC or vice versa: it seems conceivable to me that they could be separable, but maybe this is one of those things that isn't really conceivable at all (maybe philosophers are just deluding themselves that they have reliable intuitions/imaginings about this)

      From your argument above though, I think P3 is the one that sits least well with me. What warrants the claim that vivid access consciousness is "experientially equivalent" to PC for some?

    2. Your question boils down to the main political question in times like this.: either affirmation or negation of metaphysical realms. (PC). How about considering convergence between PC and AC into a vector force, versus AC linear force. Isn't vector force always slower and less rewarding in terms of vivid and more reach access memory? Perhaps it is, because it takes more factors into consideration while shaping output. And we did not even touch ethics yet.