When Does Consciousness Matter? Lessons from the Minimally Conscious State

American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 9 (1):5-15 (2018)
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Patients in a minimally conscious state (MCS) fall into a different diagnostic category than patients in the more familiar vegetative states (VS). Not only are MCS patients conscious in some sense, they have a higher chance for recovery than VS patients. Because of these differences, we ostensibly have reason to provide MCS patients with care that goes beyond what we provide to patients with some VS patients. But how to justify this differential treatment? I argue we can’t justify it solely by looking to MCS patients’ actual levels of consciousness. We must look also to the ways in which these patients are potentially conscious. Specifically, I argue that certain sensible and well-regarded policy recommendations cannot be justified by looking solely to patients’ actual levels of consciousness, but that they can be justified by looking to patients’ potential for consciousness. Insofar then as we have prima facie reason to follow the recommendations, we also have prima facie reason to view the potential for consciousness as morally salient. If that is true, however, several important implications follow: first, if the potential for consciousness is morally salient, this translates into actual and pressing obligations to patients with disorders of consciousness generally. Second, if the potential for consciousness is morally salient, this has implications that go beyond our obligations to patients with disorders of consciousness. Indeed, if the potential for consciousness is morally salient, this adds an important layer of complexity to the normative landscape, a layer we may not have sufficiently noticed before.



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Joseph Vukov
Loyola University, Chicago

References found in this work

Animal Liberation.Bill Puka & Peter Singer - 1977 - Philosophical Review 86 (4):557.
Defining Death.William Charlton - 2022 - New Blackfriars 103 (1107):607-621.
Animal Rights and Human Obligations.Tom Regan & Peter Singer - 1978 - Philosophy 53 (206):576-577.
Are DCD Donors Dead?Don Marquis - 2010 - Hastings Center Report 40 (3):24-31.
Why Potentiality Matters.Jim Stone - 1987 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 17 (4):815-829.

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