Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The conscious beneficiaries of morality

To whom do we have a moral duty? Sam Harris identifies "conscious beings" as the beneficiaries of our morality.

This is a very broad category, and perhaps Harris is correct. The momentum of history appears to be with him, in that our moral circle is ever-expanding. We first felt this duty only to our kin, then later to our nation, our race, our species.

In the present day, many are concerned with the well-being of members of other species. The future may bring yet more expansion of this moral circle, perhaps even bringing artificially intelligent constructs into the fold. 

Harris seems to include certain animals in his circle of morality, which will please animal rights advocates. On the other hand, pro-life campaigners will be disappointed that Harris seems to exclude human embryos. That some people may reasonably disagree with him calls the objectivity of his axiom into question, however this is the topic of an earlier post.

Let's assume Harris has correctly identified the correct description for moral beneficiaries. In this post, I discuss the problem of deciding objectively who fits it.

In my view, Harris is right that the question of consciousness is of supreme relevance to morality. By definition, consciousness is a prerequisite for the experience of suffering or pleasure, and indeed for the experience of anything at all. Perhaps we could say that Harris's axiom includes one abstract concept too many - we could restate it as "morality is that which seeks to promote the well-being of entities for whom the concept of well-being applies".

Consciousness is a tricky subject. It's poorly understood, and even worse, it's poorly defined. There is only one being who any investigator can with certainty identify as conscious, and that is the investigator him or herself. Solipsism is the view that only one's own mind exists, and while it is rarely taken seriously, it is impossible to refute.

There is no consensus that animals are conscious, or if they are, then which ones are and which ones aren't. Some maintain that only humans are truly conscious, whereas for others the consciousness of insects is worth considering.

The very idea of machine consciousness is inconceivable for some, as John Searle illustrates with his famous Chinese Room argument. For physicalists, only the impossibility of machine intelligence is indefensible.

Consider Commander Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is an intelligent android who we can presume is conscious, and yet he is incapable of feeling emotion. It would seem that the concept of well-being does not apply to him. I feel uncertain about whether we should feel any moral duty towards such a being, so perhaps such a line of argument could lead to another criticism of Harris's axiom.

Even within our own species we can find examples where the question of consciousness is far from settled. Are babies conscious, or are they mindlessly reacting to stimuli? Parents may feel that their infant is a little person, but their beliefs can hardly be held to be objective in the matter. So, if babies are not truly conscious, does that imply that we do not have a moral duty to them?

It may be that some future science of consciousness will resolve most of these issues, and that is why I call this issue problematic rather than insurmountable for Harris.

In my opinion, it is very likely that the difference between mindless automation and reflective thought is one of degree rather than one of substance. If this is the case, then there must be an element of subjectivity in where we draw the line.

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