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Moral landscape – how Sam Harris makes an argument against abortion

January 22, 2014

Sam Harris’ thesis of The Moral Landscape is that morality should be viewed in terms of the well being of conscious creatures. On page 32 of The Moral Landscape he goes about expanding his discussion on consciousness. He states the importance and primacy of consciousness by proposing that through reason alone, ‘consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value’ (p.32). 

Harris is suggesting that conscious experiences are the crucial things of value. He challenges anyone to come up with an alternative, ‘I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings’ He dismisses any alternative as being ‘by definition–the least interesting thing in the universe‘.

Harris is a little unclear at this point because it’s unclear what he exactly means by ‘affecting the experience of any creature’. For example, some transcendent values like ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ may or may not have anything to do with our experience. i.e. whether or not we actually experience them doesn’t mean that the value is ‘there’. This is a weakness of his discussion.

Anyway, Harris has established consciousness as his foundation and the actual or potential experiences of conscious creatures are the important sources of value. But the main point I found fascinating is that Harris considers potentiality as a valid area of value. He writes that ‘all other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings’.

Harris’ argument defending the foundational value of consciousness raises a couple of questions.

  1. What does this say about conscious creatures who are not immediately conscious – e.g. people who are knocked unconscious, are under anesthetic, are in comas or are sleeping? Does the fact that they are not presently conscious negate their claim on value? i.e. should we still value them even though they are not immediately conscious?
  2. What does this say about beings that are not currently conscious (as we know) but will be? e.g. foetus’ and babies.

In resolving the dilemma posed in question 1, we can solve the dilemma in question 2.

To resolve question 1, we can assume that ‘conscious creatures who are not immediately conscious’ belong to a group who are characterised by consciousness – i.e. human beings. This means that the experience of consciousness is no longer the primary determinant of ethical value, but the characterisation of consciousness. Hence we can still value the actual and potential experiences of people who are unconscious because they are characterised by consciousness and in most cases they will re-emerge into consciousness i.e. when they wake up.

Clarifying this helps resolve question 2 because a foetus and a baby will develop into a fully conscious being (although when consciousness begins is unclear). The DNA of a foetus demonstrates that this being is part of a group characterised by consciousness i.e. they are human. Furthermore as Harris has argued we need to consider ‘potential’ experience. Abortion denies an emerging consciousness any form of experience. If you have any doubts about the potentiality of consciousness of a foetus, then I’d suggest waiting a couple of years and then re-assessing. Hence Harris’ argument for the ‘actual or potential’ experience of conscious creatures is decisive and makes a strong case against abortion.

Harris has stated that the actual and potential experiences of conscious creatures are fundamental to value. He also claims that we should maximise the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Harris has recognised that the potential experiences of conscious creatures (i.e. a group characterised by consciousness) is worth valuing. Hence Harris has built a very effective argument against abortion because this denies the potential experience of an emerging conscious creature.

I realise Harris never articulates an argument against abortion, but his argument valuing the potential experiences of conscious creatures leads to that conclusion.

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