|Consciousness and Moral Responsibility|
By Neil Levy
There has been a lot of debate in recent years focusing on the relationship between consciousness and moral responsibility. Some of this debate has been spurred by work in neuroscience and in social psychology, which allegedly shows that we lack ‘conscious will’: we are not conscious of the volitions that actually cause our actions. This work has been taken by some neuroscientists to threaten moral responsibility: “We do not hold people responsible for actions performed unconsciously, without the possibility of conscious control”, Libet claims. On the other hand, and quite independently of concerns over these alleged threats, a number of philosophers have recently argued that consciousness is not needed for moral responsibility at all: that we can be morally responsible for actions while unconscious of the reasons for which we act.
While these two parallel debates have produce a great deal of valuable work, they have not intersected. Moreover, neither has made any reference to the rich body of work on the neuroscience of consciousness. In fact we know a great deal about consciousness, from careful experimental work which compares the behavior and the neural correlates of subjects who can report a stimulus versus those who cannot. This work demonstrates that consciousness is not necessary for responding to a stimulus, but that there are systematic differences in the behavior of people who are conscious of the representations they are responding to, versus those who are not. On this basis, we are able to develop an account of the basis and functional role of consciousness.
The account of consciousness I defend in the book is a version of the global workspace account, first developed by Bernard Baars. According to this account (as I develop it), when information is conscious it is available to all or most of the consuming systems that compose the mind, whereas when information is processed in the absence of consciousness its contents are available only to a relatively narrow range of these systems. But the things that make us who we are as individuals – our beliefs, principles, and so on – are distributed across the brain. This entails, I claim, that when responses are driven by a relatively narrow range of consuming systems, they are not fully expressive of the person, nor fully controlled by the person. Expression of the person and control are, I argue, the two most plausible necessary conditions for moral responsibility. In many circumstances, this loss of the expression relation and of robust control is sufficient to eliminate moral responsibility; responsibility is eliminated because consciousness is eliminated. Therefore, consciousness is, after all, a necessary condition of moral responsibility.
I argue that attention to actual cases of people performing morally significant actions while in states that involve absence of or greatly reduced consciousness supports this claim. Behaviours in these states is inflexible and stereotyped: just what one would expect given that the information is not available to a broad range of consuming systems. Extending the theory, I argue that people in ordinary states of consciousness may have their moral responsibility greatly reduced or eliminated by absence of consciousness of some content to which they nevertheless respond. Of course, the theory is heavily empirical, and perhaps its claims may not stand up to future scrutiny. However our philosophy ought to be responsive to good science; the risks of refutation may be greater, but we gain in confidence that our theories are grounded in the nature of the world.