Consciousness and human rights

By Christine De Baets

Depending on people’s backgrounds, some like to challenge the pro-life position on scientific grounds, others on philosophical grounds. A particular point of intersection of the two perspectives – and one that comes up often – is the topic of consciousness. The term carries with it a lot of interesting intellectual tradition. However, most either only consider a narrow portion of it, or make use of it simply to serve pre-established purposes. 

In conversations, I’ve often encountered the sentiment that once we’ve come up with a morally significant definition of consciousness, we need only couple that with the precision of modern scientific knowledge to establish when exactly this ability starts to occur. From there, we can separate the humans it would be morally inconsequential to kill from those who have earned their “humanity” in the complete sense of the word. 

First, utilizing consciousness for this purpose misrepresents the philosophical interest in the concept, which does not intend the victimization of human beings. That some people use it that way is what I mean by serving pre-established purposes. 

Secondly, because of the complex nature of consciousness, pinpointing a part of the brain or a time where it begins is not like determining when we can develop motor skills or which part of the brain controls speech. Moreover, because of the way science works, new findings are constantly challenging us and making us readjust our theories especially in regards to our most intriguing organ. 

For instance, in the past year, an article entitled A man who lives without 90% of his brain is challenging our concept of 'consciousness' tells of a very curious case. A father of two who leads a normal life found out most of his brain had eroded due to a condition called hydrocephalus. Yet he hasn’t lost his functions and definitely hasn’t lost his consciousness. 

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What does this mean for the plasticity of the brain? I’m sure a lot can be explored in this respect. One breakthrough often leads to many others. Also, how has this affected our understanding of consciousness? According to the cognitive psychologist cited in the article, the man’s consciousness was ensured by the fact that his remaining brain cells could still generate theories about themselves. So it seems consciousness is not related to how much of a brain you have, but rather is a capacity that is above and beyond mere brain activity and the basic performance of neurons.

All in all, it’s fascinating stuff, but the fact that we can analyze and discuss this highlights another important point: consciousness remains a capacity. It is all well to understand what abilities are particular to human life, but we must remember that an ability like consciousness or “knowing that you know” is displayed because we are human beings. The same is true for the pre-born: they do not become human once this capacity is developed, but instead, because they belong to the human species they eventually develop this capacity.  

If we had before us something that looked like either a tortoise or a turtle, but we didn’t know which it was, we might take a guess. How will we verify our theory? Let’s say we put the animal in water. Tortoises do not live underwater while turtles do. If we see it swimming, we can rightly confirm that it was a turtle. It has performed a distinctly turtle-like behaviour. However, it is not a turtle because it could swim. While it was confirmed to be a turtle because it could swim, it can swim because it is a turtle. It would still be a turtle, even if, for some reason, it would (currently) be unable to swim.  

However, if we had been able to know that the shelled reptile was the offspring of two turtles, we wouldn’t have needed to look at how he’d react to water at all. We simply know turtles make turtles. In the same way, humans make humans and while exhibiting consciousness can confirm a living being is human, it does not turn him or her into a human. 

To say that a certain function like consciousness grants or denies human rights is arbitrary. First, it is arbitrary because it depends on the age of the person, something they cannot change about themselves. It is all the more arbitrary because, as the case mentioned earlier shows, consciousness is not as rigidly tied to brain growth as many people make it out to be. You could have someone with physically more brain than the man with hydrocephalus yet be unconscious. A brain’s non-conceptual theory about itself cannot be measured like some might expect. Lastly, it is arbitrary because it is imposing a performance exam on human beings to see if they deserve human rights, when in actuality those rights are intrinsic and unalienable. 

We don’t get basic human rights because of what we can do. If we did, whose authority is it to decide which function over another will qualify? To be consistent, our human rights should begin when the human begins. After all, “human being” is not a title we work toward, and the accompanying human rights are not something to be granted – they are either denied or recognized. Deferring to the biologists or the philosophers to clarify questions of consciousness avoids answering the issue with what we know already, and certainly doesn’t help the children whose lives are at stake.