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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.