Photo by Daiga Ellaby
To disagree successfully, we must first agree on how we disagree. Then—and only then—we must make (not have) arguments that speak to each other’s values and actual views, and be able to hear and respond to the most potent versions of those arguments. That so many of us are unable to do any of this when it comes to abortion is perhaps the most significant reason for the debate’s stagnation.
To understand why this conversation is so riddled with straw men, personal attacks and fruitless discourse, it’ll help to examine our labels. Tellingly, these labels describe not so much our positions on abortion per se, but the value judgments that allegedly underpin those positions. Instead of calling herself “anti-abortion”, my cousin would say she’s “pro-life”, reflecting the judgment that the greatest value is always (or almost always) the life of the unborn. Meanwhile, most people would say not that I’m “pro-abortion”, but “pro-choice”. Which, in any case, is misleading. For this label usually applies to those of us who hold something like the view that, all things being equal, the mother’s right to choose is more valuable than the life of the unborn until, at some point during pregnancy, the tables turn. Here, then, the “pro-choice” label is a partial misnomer: people like me are really “pro-choice” until we’re “pro-life”. Otherwise—and this seems to me a more accurate, though much rarer, use of the term—to identify as “pro-choice” is to believe that the mother’s right to choose is more valuable than the life of the unborn right up to the moment of birth.
Regardless of which of these labels we adopt for ourselves, we should be able to admit when those with whom we disagree have a point. Those of us who are pro-life should be able to agree that everyone of sound mind should have the right to make informed choices about what to do with their bodies insofar as they don’t impinge on the rights of others. This is why we accept that any of us may choose to change our bodies with tattoos, piercings or sex reassignment surgery, and risk damaging them by overeating, horse riding or taking alcohol, even if we wouldn’t do so ourselves. At the same time, those of us who are pro-choice should be able to agree that human life begins at conception. Though a definition of precisely what separates life from non-life remains elusive (viruses, for instance, are a controversial edge case), it is scientifically uncontroversial that a newly fertilised ovum possesses all of the attributes that might constitute a minimal definition of life—such as cell division, metabolism and the maintenance of homeostasis—and then some.
But if I’m “pro-choice” and my cousin “pro-life”, does that mean that I’m “anti-life” and she “anti-choice”? I don’t think so. And yet, that’s exactly what’s implied when we frame opposing views on abortion in terms of the seemingly incommensurable values of life and choice. In turn, then, these flawed labels cause many of us—intentionally or not—to routinely misrepresent those with whom we disagree. Seeing the issue through the lens of women’s right to choose often causes us to assume that people who are “pro-life” are misogynistic and, therefore, that they want to exert control over women. At the same time, seeing things through the lens of life can lead us to assume that those of us who are “pro-choice” either do not accept that the unborn are alive, and so we are either ignorant or in denial; or that we do not respect life, and so we must want to kill babies. In response, we can all honestly say, ‘we don’t’, even as we continue to straw-man our opponents’ views.
It need not be this way. For there is another lens through which we can view the question of abortion; one that commensurates the seemingly incommensurable values of life and choice by collapsing them into a single value that subsumes them both: consciousness.
Something is conscious when there is something that it is like to be that thing1. There’s something that it’s like to be you because, for you, something seems to be happening. This “seeming” is the fact of consciousness; a fact that cannot be attributed to, say, a lasagne. While we don’t know precisely when and how consciousness comes online, we do know that it has something to do with functioning brains2. So, while we have no idea what it’s like to be a goat, we can be as sure as we are of anything that there’s something that it’s like to be a goat. However, since a goat’s brain is less complex than a human’s, it must also give rise to a conscious experience that is necessarily less rich. Meanwhile, since neither a tree nor a bacterium has a brain, we can safely assume that neither is conscious even though both are alive. There’s also nothing that it is like to be a human corpse, since its brain isn’t working on account of its being dead. In short: not all things that are alive are conscious; not all conscious things are human; and some things have richer and more valuable conscious experiences than others.
Consciousness, then, is the locus of all value. Without it, there is no value. For unless there is something that can experience the wellbeing and suffering that come from, respectively, positive and negative permutations of value, the very concept has no meaning. As such, consciousness subsumes any other kind of value you care to mention; from life to choice, love to property, pizza to Tom Hanks films. So, whether our primary concern is life, choice or some combination of both, to explain how these things matter is, ultimately, to be able to explain their consequences for consciousness and its contents. Whatever our ethical obligations might be, then, they begin with consciousness at its most basic and scale according to its richness. So, fundamentally, we don’t believe it’s more wrong to kill a human than it is to kill a goat because humans are somehow “more alive” than goats; nor that it’s more wrong to deprive choice from humans than from goats because humans have more of a right to autonomy. We believe these things because consciousness is richer in humans than it is in goats, so that, for humans, the termination of life constitutes a greater loss and the deprivation of choice a greater harm. Meanwhile, if some living thing is neither conscious nor valued by beings that are conscious, it isn’t wrong to kill it. If it were, you would be guilty of a monstrous crime every time you bleached your toilet.
On at least these things, I think, we should be able to agree. But as thing stand, the unhelpful labels of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” blind us to this terrain of agreement we might traverse toward better answers to this most vexing of questions. Much energy is wasted, and nothing is resolved. Meanwhile, the conscious lens has the potential to add significant clarity to our tremendously muddled conversations by bringing us together at a new starting point of agreement. Here, whether we currently see ourselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, we can begin any discussion on abortion by agreeing that each of us is pro-consciousness. And though we may continue to disagree about what being pro-consciousness means for the permissibility of abortion, our shared conscious lens would give rise to a far more reasonable and constructive debate; one that we all recognise as arising from a conflict of conscious interests.
This conscious lens would enable us to start our conversations from, roughly speaking, one of three positions. Those of us who see ourselves as “pro-life” could restate our position as what we might call pro-consciousness prohibitionism: the position that the current or future existence of the unborn’s consciousness is more valuable than any improvement to the mother’s conscious experience that might arise from her having the right to choose (except, perhaps, where her conscious existence is threatened). Meanwhile, those of us who are “pro-choice” absolutists could reframe our position as pro-consciousness permissivism: the approximate opposite of pro-consciousness prohibitionism. And those of us who hold intermediate “pro-choice” positions could state them as versions of pro-consciousness conditionalism: the position that, since the relative values of the unborn’s conscious existence and the quality of the mother’s conscious experience change under different conditions, so does the permissibility of abortion. The most important of these conditions would be determinations of approximately when the unborn could reasonably be said to become conscious and how its contents develop in richness from there, which would in turn help to determine the stage of pregnancy at which, all things being equal, abortion becomes impermissible. With our various pro-consciousness positions in hand, we can continue using the conscious lens to make arguments that each of us is far more likely to recognise as criticisms of our actual views, whether we accept those criticisms as legitimate or object to them.
At this point, you might be thinking that none of what I’ve said here is, in itself, likely to change where each of us stands on abortion. I agree. Moreover, positions that don’t arise from attempts to reason about the consequences of abortion can’t be reframed in this way. For instance, many of us derive our pro-life positions from a belief in the god-ordained sanctity of human life or our pro-choice positions from a belief in the feminist-ordained sanctity of a woman’s right to choose. In such cases, any move away from ideology and toward consequentialist reasoning would constitute progress, even if that reasoning were framed by the values of life and choice rather than consciousness.
Those caveats in place, the point of reframing the way we think about abortion by exchanging our different lenses of life and choice for the universal lens of consciousness is not to make us change our position (though it might). The point is to make us think more carefully about what these positions—both our own and those we disagree with—really mean for that which we truly value. Though abortion is a question to which there are only bad answers, confident claims to not just the least bad answer, but good answers, are, at present, all too easy to find. Such diverse certainty, surrounding an issue this complex, is a sure sign of confusion. And we can’t make progress on this vital issue until we dispel that confusion.
As I was almost done writing this piece, I had the opportunity to begin putting this thinking into action when, for the first time in several years, my cousin and I talked about abortion once again. Since, as I mentioned earlier, the first step toward a successful disagreement is to agree on how we disagree, my first objective was to begin again by taking the time to tease out and understand all the nuances of her beliefs on the topic. That went very well, but it was also as far as we got. We didn’t even begin discussing my views—though I know she wants to understand them better—much less exploring how the conscious lens might change how we talk to each other about abortion. And that’s okay. For, it seems, better conversations also take more time. I hope that, in our future discussions, the conscious lens will help my cousin and I make better arguments that, even if they don’t lead to more agreement on abortion, will at least lead to a successful disagreement. And that is something we must all strive for if there’s to be any hope for us to converge on the least bad answers to this most emotive of issues.
If you found this writing valuable, you can support me by sharing it. Many thanks in advance. JFM
- Nagel, T. (1979) Mortal Questions, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. ↩
- Here, I should flag that some proposed theories of consciousness, such as panpsychism, hold that consciousness pervades the entire universe—including lasagnes—in some form. While I don’t know which, if any, of these proposed theories is true, I also don’t know of any that would materially affect the arguments I’m making here. So, for simplicity, I’ll continue to assume that consciousness somehow arises when matter is organised in a functioning brain. ↩