Moral significance of phenomenal consciousness

Progress in Brain Research (2009)
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Abstract

Recent work in neuroimaging suggests that some patients diagnosed as being in the persistent vegetative state are actually conscious. In this paper, we critically examine this new evidence. We argue that though it remains open to alternative interpretations, it strongly suggests the presence of consciousness in some patients. However, we argue that its ethical significance is less than many people seem to think. There are several different kinds of consciousness, and though all kinds of consciousness have some ethical significance, different kinds underwrite different kinds of moral value. Demonstrating that patients have phenomenal consciousness — conscious states with some kind of qualitative feel to them — shows that they are moral patients, whose welfare must be taken into consideration. But only if they are subjects of a sophisticated kind of access consciousness — where access consciousness entails global availability of information to cognitive systems — are they persons, in the technical sense of the word employed by philosophers. In this sense, being a person is having the full moral status of ordinary human beings. We call for further research which might settle whether patients who manifest signs of consciousness possess the sophisticated kind of access consciousness required for personhood.

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Neil Levy
University of Oxford

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