Self-Consciousness: Are you really sure you wanna go there?
When you ground human equality in psychological traits, horrific consequences ensue.
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 Hello friends. Welcome to the case for life podcast, where we aim to explore issues related to the pro life issue and help you deal with them intelligently. Thanks to all of you that have written in and provided comments on our social media pages. Those of you that have put forward some thoughtful objections, I’ve done my best to interact with you and we’ll continue to do so.

I read all the comments. I don’t respond to all of them. So what I generally do, just so you know, if a comment is thoughtful, I will engage it. If it’s not, I’m going to ignore it. So feel free to put your, your thoughtful questions there and I’ll do my best to get to them. Also want to thank Life Training Institute for sponsoring this podcast.

Be sure to visit us at prolifetraining. com where I am fortunate to serve as the president of that fine organization. We would love to hear from you if we can provide a speaker or otherwise get someone out to your group to help you explore more the world of pro life apologetics. Today I want to engage a line of thought that came up in one of the more thoughtful comments.

There was a commenter named Stephen that put forward a very thoughtful counter to one of my claims and I appreciate that. It was thoughtful, it was, uh, engaging, and basically his argument went like this. Until there is psychological unity or continuity, which he basically defined as consciousness, there isn’t a right to life possible.

And I want to engage that idea a little bit and, and look at it. Now, notice what’s being advanced here. It is a view of the human person along the lines of what we call philosophical anthropology. This is a lot of big terminology here I’m throwing at you, but let me define what that is. Philosophical anthropology is simply a look at what makes humans unique, what makes us valuable in the first place, what does it mean to be human.

In other words, it’s a philosophical reflection on the nature of being human. That’s all it is. And when somebody advances a view, of what makes humans valuable and have a right to life, they are inevitably doing philosophical anthropology. And as I talked about in the previous episode, it is no more religious to say the unborn are human and have a right to life that it is to say they don’t.

Both views are using philosophical anthropology to answer the question what makes humans valuable in the first place. Now Steve didn’t go there with that point. His assertion was that consciousness is what gives us value and a right to life. So let’s take a look at that and just see if we can’t make some sense of that view.

The first thing I would point out is it’s always fair to ask what do you mean by consciousness? For example, if you mean actual consciousness, that means you’re not a person when you sleep at night. So you literally pop in and out of existence. every time you wake up and go to bed at night. Uh, do you mean immediately exercisable consciousness?

Well, that would protect you while you’re sleeping, but not while you’re under anesthesia for surgery. Or do you mean that you have a threshold of consciousness that you have to cross before you have value and a right to life? Well, that would make it interesting. Suppose we had a newborn, two newborns, a set of twins, we’ll call them Abe and Dan.

Abe and Dan are born as twins. Abe briefly is self conscious for about two seconds, but immediately lapses back into being unconscious. But nine months later, he will have full consciousness. Dan, on the other hand, is born never having had consciousness, but he will have it nine months later. Are we really so sure that there’s a drastic difference between those two?

Do we really want to say it’s okay to kill Dan because he never crossed the threshold of consciousness while Abe briefly did and then lost it again? That doesn’t seem intuitive at all. I would also point out you’re always within your right to ask the person Why does consciousness matter in the first place?

Notice that when somebody asserts a philosophical anthropology about what makes humans valuable and what gives us a right to life, it is always within the right of the person hearing the claim to say, Tell me why you believe that is what gives us value, and that’s perfectly important. I would also point out, it’s in, it’s a good idea to point out some of the implications of that view.

For example, if consciousness is what gives us value and a right to life, Those with more of it have a greater right to life than those with less. You can also point out another implication, that not only does consciousness as a threshold destroy human equality, it also proves more than most people want to talk about, and that’s where we’re going to go today.

In addition to asking why a particular trait is value giving, We can also point out that all of these traits have devastating effects on human equality. You either believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life, or you don’t. If you don’t, the reason you deny that is you believe there are certain traits one must have in order to count as a protectable human life, or what some would call a person.

The problem with that view is this, whatever trait you pick out as decisive, None of us share that equally, and those traits may come and go in the course of our lifetime. For example, are we all equally self aware? We most certainly are not. Are we all equally, uh, developed in terms of our physical growth?

No, we’re not. Are we all equally able to feel pain? Are we equally aware of our environments, equally able to interact with those around us? On all of those fronts, those things come in degrees. We don’t share them equally. And they may come and go in the course of our lifetime. So if you are grounding human equality in a trait that none of us share equally, there goes your whole egalitarian premise.

We’ll look at that more in detail in just a minute when we look at what Jeff McMahon has to say about this whole idea of consciousness being the decisive thing. But I think there’s more we can point out as well. And this is today what I want to focus on. What are the implications? Of a psychological account.

of human identity or human value, either way. Now, you may remember from a previous episode, we talked about there’s two types of views of people that advance a psychological view of human value. The one view we’ll call the identity view is held by guys like Peter Singer, Jeff McMahon, Michael Tooley, Giubilini and Minerva and others, and their view is this.

There’s no you present until you have psychological continuity. In other words, before you have a sense of yourself existing over time to the extent that you value your own existence and would feel deprived if you were not able to have it. Until that point, there’s no you there. There might be a physical body there, but there’s no you there because identity is not grounded in anything related to your body.

Rather, it’s grounded solely in your cognitive self. Now, this is a view known as body self dualism as well. We won’t get into that today, but just keep in mind on the identity view There’s no you there until you have a psychological self connected by memory. Until then, you’re not there. So that means newborns, fetuses, and as we will show in a minute, even toddlers would be disqualified on this view.

The other view says you were there from the beginning. This would be the view of David Boonin, for example. You were there from the beginning. However, just because you’re identical to your former embryonic or fetal self does not mean you have the same right to life then as you do now. Your right to life is contingent upon having immediately exercisable desires, and until you have them, You’re not a subject of rights.

You exist. You’re the same being you once were and later will be, but you don’t have rights that would engage us to say we’ve got to respect your right to live. So those are the two views. Both of them, though, are problematic in this regard. They end up proving a whole lot more than those advancing the view want to admit in many cases.

For example, we now know that not only do fetuses and, and, uh, newborns not have a sense of self existing over time, But rather, toddlers probably don’t either. In fact, the latest MSR test results, where we test infants to see what they’re able to remember, how they view themselves as distinct from others, now tell us that there’s no real sense of self awareness as a distinct individual.

until approaching age three, and that infants don’t value their own existence the way that more mature human entities do. That leads then to the view that if psychological accounts of human personhood are correct, in other words, if your right to life is grounded in a self awareness that values existence, You may not have that, not only at your fetal and newborn stage, you don’t have it when you’re two and three years old.

Now that just is absurd, and yet that is an implication of the view that says what matters is the psychological self, not you being an existing human being. You also point out here, I should say, we should also point out here something that Jeff McMahon, a defender of both abortion and infanticide, has conceded.

He very candidly admits that if we accept these psychological accounts of human value, we’re not going to be able to deny that using orphaned infants harvesting is wrong. In fact, in his book, on page 360, he is very candid. He says he doesn’t like where it goes. But he admits that if we accept that psychological accounts of human identity and value are really what are in play here, that there’s no good argument for saying that we can’t use orphaned newborns for organ harvesting for actual persons who may need those organs.

After all, we live in a society where there’s a shortage. of transplantable organs. One way we could fix that is if we took orphaned infants who are not wanted by anybody, and because they’re not yet persons, they’re only potential persons, with less of a relative right to life than actual persons, then using their organs for transplantation would not be a moral wrong.

Actually, McMahon goes a step further in that passage. He says not only is using Orphaned infants for organ harvesting permissible, it’s perhaps obligatory, and here’s why. The rights of actual persons always override the rights of merely potential ones. So if we have an actual person, that needs, for example, a heart transplant or a liver transplant, and we’ve got an orphaned infant over here that is not yet a full person because it does not yet have psychological continuity, it would be mandatory for us to take that organ from the infant, healthy or not, and transplant that organ into a person who is actually enjoying their existence.

He is very candid about admitting that. He doesn’t like how it feels. But he, at least on page 360, is very candid that that’s where the argument actually goes. Now, what also struck me is this. What about then creating infants intentionally for the purpose of using them for organ harvesting or using them for blood donation?

Who knows what? Why would that be wrong under this view? And the answer is it wouldn’t be wrong, because if you’re not yet a person, if personhood is grounded in your ability to value your own self existence, see yourself existing over time, if these psychological accounts of human value are correct, then it follows that creating a being that does not yet have those traits and killing that person or that individual, then before they become persons would not be wrong.

So there’s nothing on this view that would prohibit. In fact, again, I would say it almost becomes obligatory for us to do so because the needs of actual persons will always outweigh the needs of merely potential ones. All right, that’s, uh, what I want to chew on today. I think you get the idea that really it’s the pro life worldview that does the better job of accounting for human equality, and here’s why.

On our view, what makes us equal and valuable is not some trait that may come and go, not some trait that none of us share equally, not some arbitrarily selected thing that you may never live up to. Rather, What gives us our dignity and value is that each of us has a human nature. Now, Christians are going to argue that that human nature bears the image of its creator, and I hold that view.

Others are going to argue that, no, it’s just that we have the same human nature and that’s enough. Either way, that worldview can account for human equality, and here’s why. That worldview says that your dignity and value is grounded in something that doesn’t vary. We all equally share a human nature. You either have it or you don’t.

If you don’t, you’re dead. Um, it also says that your human nature does not come and go. You don’t lose it when you go to sleep or, or have surgery. Rather, it’s there all along. As long as you are living, you are you have a human nature and you got that human nature the moment you began to exist. That view can account for human equality because it recognizes these other traits like self awareness, consciousness, having the ability to see yourself existing over time, valuing your own existence, uh, having immediately exercisable desires, pick whatever trait you want.

The endowment view that pro lifers hold to recognizes that these are mere accidental traits that none of us share equally. What matters is the essential trait of having a human nature. That is what gives us our dignity and value. And that trait does not come in degrees. That’s the pro life view. That’s why I think it does a better job accounting for human equality.

That’s all for today. Look forward to seeing you next time on the Case for Life broadcast.