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Is consciousness intrinsically valuable?


There are some things that we think are intrinsically valuable, or valuable for their own sake. Is consciousness—subjective, qualitative experience—one of those things? Some theorists favor the positive view, according to which consciousness is intrinsically valuable. According to a positive theorist, consciousness itself accrues intrinsic value, independent of the particular kind of experience instantiated. In contrast, I favor the neutral view, according to which consciousness is neither intrinsically valuable nor disvaluable. The primary purpose of this paper is to clarify what is at stake when we ask whether consciousness is intrinsically valuable, to carve out the theoretical space, and to evaluate the question rigorously. The secondary purpose is to show why the neutral view is attractive and why certain arguments for the positive view do not work.

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  1. Sometimes creature consciousness is instead characterized as the capacity to have conscious mental states, but the formulation I use is more relevant for the purposes here.

  2. I’ll also assume that if something has intrinsic value, then it necessarily has intrinsic value. Some theorists (e.g., Korsgaard 1983) disagree with this characterization of intrinsic value, and think that something can have intrinsic value contingently—though these claims are controversial (see Zimmerman 2015 for some discussion). But even if we accept that there could be contingent intrinsic value, we can simply reframe our question as concerned with whether consciousness necessarily has intrinsic value.

  3. Some papers have been explicitly concerned with the moral (as opposed to evaluative) significance of consciousness. For example, Levy and Savulescu (2009) argue that consciousness is sufficient for moral patiency (but not for moral personhood). Other papers, such as Siewert (1998, 2013) and Kahane and Savulescu (2009) seem concerned with both moral and evaluative issues. I am explicitly concerned with issues about what makes things better or worse rather than right or wrong, and I make no claims about what bearing my considerations have for the moral significance of consciousness.

  4. No part of this paper crucially relies upon these assumptions, but taking these assumptions for granted will make the discussion smoother.

  5. If you think that only creatures that are conscious can be bearers of individual value, then perhaps we cannot ask whether is creature is better off if conscious because there are no scenarios in which the creature exists but is not conscious. But even if this is right, we could still ask whether intrinsic value is accrued in virtue of consciousness itself, or whether all intrinsic individual value is accrued in virtue of other properties.

  6. See Sidgwick (1907) and Moore (1903) for some classic discussions of this issue.

  7. Some might worry about the fact that these considerations require us to consider metaphysical impossibilities. According to many theories of consciousness, we cannot hold fixed all the physical features of a being while varying whether or not that being is conscious. But it is epistemic possibility, rather than metaphysical possibility, that is relevant for normative theorizing. For example, we can (and do) consider the normative upshot of actual lobsters being conscious versus the normative upshot of actual lobsters being non-conscious, even if we think that one of these possibilities must be metaphysically impossible.

  8. A related worry concerns semantics, rather than concepts. Perhaps there is only one concept of intrinsic value, but sentences of the form ‘X is intrinsically valuable’ can sometimes mean ‘Some determinates of X are intrinsically valuable.’ But this leads to worries analogous to those just discussed. For example, this view makes the implausible prediction that there are readings of sentences such as ‘Existence is intrinsically valuable’ that are obviously true. Moreover, if this semantic analysis applies to sentences of the form ‘X is intrinsically valuable’, then it plausibly also applies to sentences of the form ‘X is intrinsically disvaluable.’ But this would entail the implausible result that there is a true reading of ‘Consciousness is intrinsically disvaluable.’

  9. If the idea of creating an actual universe is too far-fetched, we could imagine that we are able to create simulated worlds with conscious inhabitants.

  10. Nevertheless, someone who thinks that a sparse brightness phenomenal character is intrinsically valuable might likewise be inclined to think that these other sparse phenomenal characters are intrinsically valuable as well.

  11. I’ll assume that intrinsic disvalue of pain correlates linearly with magnitude of pain.

  12. This could also be done using just a single world with a conscious creature and modulating the creature’s level of pain until the world is evaluatively neutral. However, the pairwise comparison is better for isolating the evaluative contribution of consciousness because it abstracts away from other potentially valuable features (such as the creature itself, independent of its experience).

  13. Another way to quantify consciousness is to simply aggregate subjects of experience. There is more consciousness in a world that contains ten subjects than a world that contains just one subject. It’s relatively easy to move from the single subject cases considered previously to multi-subject cases, and I suspect that most people’s intuitions will remain stable as we generalize to the multi-subject cases. On the other hand, thinking about quantity of consciousness within a subject raises new and interesting theoretical considerations. For these reasons, I focus on the intrasubject rather than intersubject cases here.

  14. One prominent account of quantity of consciousness comes from integrated information theory (Tononi 2008). But it is unclear how exactly to interpret what quantity of consciousness is measuring under integrated information theory [see Pautz (unpublished) for a critical analysis]. Examining how integrated information theory interacts with our question about the intrinsic value of consciousness would be interesting, but would also take us too far from the core issues of this paper.

  15. One might also think that there are limits on how conscious a creature could be, depending on the details of one’s account of amount of consciousness.


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Many thanks to Matthew Liao, who has provided feedback across multiple drafts of this article. Thanks also for comments from Kyle Blumberg, David Chalmers, Daniel Hoek, Ben Holguin, Rob Hopkins, Arden Koehler, Sam Lee, Rob Long, Adam Lovett, Thomas Nagel, Sam Scheffler, Sharon Street, David Velleman, Jake Zuehl, and audiences at NYU and Institut Jean Nicod.

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Correspondence to Andrew Y. Lee.

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Lee, A.Y. Is consciousness intrinsically valuable?. Philos Stud 176, 655–671 (2019).

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  • Consciousness
  • Intrinsic value
  • Value theory
  • Experience
  • Phenomenology