The Moral Permissibility of Killing A Yet-To-Be-Conscious “Person”
Some people believe that we all have a soulmate somewhere “out there.” If a person is lucky enough to meet his or her soulmate, fall in love, and spend time together, there is very little else in this world more sorrowful than losing that soulmate. This tragedy is the stuff of temptingly dark poetry and empathy-inducing, tissue-requiring romance novels. When it occurs, the surviving partners often utilize a particular metaphor to describe the feeling. They claim a part of them “has died.” Although this predicament is tremendously lamentable, the idea of “partial death” is not literally true at the time of the tragedy. However, there is a phenomenon that brings the surviving, grief-stricken partner (or anyone, for that matter) much closer to this metaphoric description. The idea that parts of us can and do in fact “die,” while at the same time our corporeal selves remain alive, is is actually a rather frequent event. Closer to the truth is the idea, not that we “lose a part of ourselves” during heartbreak but, that our fading and eventually vanished memories of trauma or joy, causes a part of us to “die.” The instant termination, or gradual fading into extinction, of memory is just like partial death, since all that makes us who we are, all that distinguishes us as singular individuals, aside from our genetically unique physical traits, is what we remember- our “catalogue of experience.” So when our catalogue loses a “file” from its “archives,” it’s almost literally like a “part” of us dies.
Each and every one of us is unique. But in the simplest terms, we are nothing more than a distinct corporeal vessel containing memories, learned skills or innate talents, and information derived from education and experience. What makes you “You” isn’t really even your physical body, since you could replace every external feature and internal organ, tissue, vessel, and bone, and change every part of yourself, from your girth and height to your nose and the last hair on your head, and you would still be “You.” Point of fact, every seven years, your cells “renew” themselves, leaving you with a completely new cellular makeup- a brand new body! Others might have trouble recognizing you if you suddenly appeared with a whole new, plastic surgery-acquired body, but you would still be the same person. It wouldn’t be as if you suddenly changed into someone else, even if you chose to alter every last physical attribute of your somatic being. This is because it’s your memories that make you who you are, as opposed to your outer shell, skills, or your informational knowledge. For it is possible for two identical twins (or genetic clones) to learn the exact same skills and the exact same information. But even if identical twins share indistinguishable learned information and experiences, the way they perceive those experiences and the way they remember them will always be different. For these reasons, it is our memories, and our perception or interpretation of these memories, that make us who we are as differentiable individuals. Experience translates to memory (the cataloging of experience), which comprises the unique “makeup” of a person. As a species, our individual identities are formed by a combination of our objective experiences and the distinct way each of us “downloads” those experiences to “feel” them again, with the recollection of the events often varying from the actual transpiring of the event, due to our desire to see ourselves a certain way (our preferred self-perception).
The complex human trait of “identity continuity” is the ability to access a memory and recognize it as our own, and as it being us as the individual who experienced the events we remember. In order to possess continuity of identity, one must be aware that one’s self is the same person who experienced those previous events and now remembers them. The ability to recall passed persistent events along a time line, in chronological order, differentiating older memories as events that occurred before newer memories, and the ability to process those memories in the first person (realize that they are your memories as opposed to someone else’s), is crucial to maintaining complex self-awareness and the recognition of ourselves as existing in a time continuum. For example, I remember brushing my teeth this morning, having breakfast, then sitting down to write this essay. I am aware that it was me who performed these actions, as opposed to someone else, due to my recalling them in a first-person perspective, and I recognize that I am the same person now as I was then. I am aware of my self as a finite, spatially-bound entity existing in time.
Unfortunately, far too many people in this world experience trauma of some kind or another, some more horrific and devastating than others. Part of the healing process to both deal and cope with traumatic experiences, and the memories of those experiences, is the passage of time. This is because, with the exception of those who have photographic memories, the ability to recall the experience of the events usually becomes progressively more and more difficult, and so the memory “fades.” And this is a good thing. It allows those who have suffered trauma a reprieve from their negative memories and prevents the recollection of a dramatic moment from seeming as if the event just happened yesterday. But the truth is that the disappearance of any memory, painful or otherwise, is like partial death. Since our memories make us who we are, the loss of a memory deprives us of a part of ourselves.
Truth be told, Descartes’ “Tabula Rasa” theory was not far from actuality. If we think of our physical bodies like chalkboards, we were all born “blank slates.” Every time we have an experience, whether it be a sensory experience or the experience of thought, it is as if our “board” has been written upon. The more experiences we have, the more the board fills up with writing. At any point, we can “read the writing on the board,” in other words, we can recollect or access a memory, while at the same time “write” on the “board,” since even memory recall is an experience in itself. But each time we forget an experience, it’s as if the writing on the board that represents that experience is erased. And thus, a part of what makes us who we are dies, because it ceases to exist. It disappears. But the sum total of our human Selves is not just the chalkboard that represents our bodies, but also the writing, or memories of experience, on it. However, since it’s possible for two chalkboards to be identical, since the writing on them will always be different, then they are in fact each unique.
The boards themselves are rather inconsequential, though. An interesting intellectual exercise is to imagine that all of your memories could be “downloaded” into another body. Even though your recollection of your past experiences will be of your former body’s sensory perception of that experience (the way your nose smelled a particular scent as pungent, whereas your new, less sensitive nose would not), your memories are the same. You are just utilizing an organically different, and altogether new, brain to access them. It could be argued that, even though “You,” the rememberer, is recollecting experiences that happened to the rememberer, since it was not your current body that had the experience, it is not You at all, inside a new body, remembering. The owner of “your” new body is simply deluded into believing that he or she is you, since the new body’s own memories have been replaced or programmed by remembered experiences it (the body) never had. Accessing memories requires a particular biological brain function, so it may be the case that if your new body is remembering something that your old body sensorily perceived and felt, and not something that happened to it, then it means that the new body is remembering something that happened to someone else (to your body). The recollection may belong to the new body, due to the specific neuron-firing it had to do to recall the memory, but the new body does not “own” the experience and, because of this, perhaps not the memory of the experience either. However, it doesn’t logically follow that I can change or replace every last cell in my body, either naturally through cell turnover or artificially with surgery, but as long as I still retain my memories, I am the same person, but then not be the same person if I replaced my body altogether and wholly at once.
So what if, rather then the passage of time erasing the writing on the chalkboard that represents my body a little at a time, and thus parts of who I am as a person die because of this loss of memories (the forgetting of certain experiences), the chalkboard is erased all at once? Consider this as akin to amnesia. Total amnesia acts as an eraser, removing from my brain all memories. Even if my physical body remains alive and intact, who I am and who I was as a person is destroyed. I am now a “blank slate,” with no ability to integrate current or future experiences into my memories, because I have none. I am an empty vessel waiting to be filled with experiences and then waiting to reach into the vessel and pull out the memories of those experiences when I desire.
If trauma causes an amnesia state, and I am also unconscious as a result of this trauma, as an “empty, unconscious vessel,” am I even a person? Remember, even consciousness itself is an experience. Within the first waking moment of consciousness, I have already had an instantaneous experience, whether it be sensory or just a single thought. Even if the first experience I have in my amnesiac consciousness is as mundane as looking up at the hospital ceiling or having the thought, “Who am I?” I have just begun on the path to who I will become as a “new” person. But if I never achieve consciousness, and also have an erased mind with no memories, the idea that I am a person and not insentient (due to unconsciousness, not lack of nerve endings) organic matter that happens to be comprised of human DNA, is far-fetched at best. In other words, it is difficult to defend the notion that killing a unconscious, memory-less human is murder.
Don Marquis wrote that what makes murder wrong is that it deprives an entity of future human-like experiences. Any entity that has the possibility of having future experiences that are human-like has the right to live in his estimation. However, it makes little sense (to me, anyway) to claim that there’s anything wrong with taking from someone something that hasn’t happened yet, or something they don’t have at the moment. Future experiences have not occurred yet. Something that has not occurred yet means it is not here now, and if it is not here now, then it has not yet come into existence. Something that has not yet come into existence does not exist. How can it be wrong to deprive someone of something that does not exist? The destruction of organic matter is in itself not wrong. Killing a person is wrong, and what makes an entity a person is also what makes human beings who they are as unique individuals with distinctive personalities. As has been explained, who we are is nothing more than our compilation of memories. And our personalities, whether they be quirky, abrasive, or mellow, are a result of our experiences and our memories of those experiences.
So a total amnesiac human who is not conscious, and has no memories or experiences, because a totally unconscious being cannot have experiences, is deprived of nothing upon accidental death or even intentional termination of his or her life. This is due to the fact that one logically cannot be deprived of future experiences, because something that exists in the future, but does not exist now, does not exist, which means that it is nothing, and one can neither possess nothing nor take away nothing from someone else. In order to steal something from someone, that thing must exist, otherwise you are quite literally stealing nothing. So killing an unconscious, memory-less being and depriving it of nothing, cannot be wrong. If you think this argument has little application, then simply revisit it’s point the next time you hear someone say killing an embryo or pre-conscious fetus is immoral.
While Marquis defends the idea that it is immoral to kill beings with future human-like experiences, and that beings who will eventually have experiences that are exclusively human in their execution are persons, making their intentional destruction by a third party murder, I contend that it is wrong to kill beings who have had past human-like experiences. This is because our recollected experiences are completely unique, contributing to a distinctive Self (a unique personality), due to the fact that even if two people endure the same occurrence, their separate bodies will process and sense the occurrence differently. One might feel more fear or pain during the event, or one might be more sensitive to the surrounding sounds or sights. Hell, one of them could be colorblind. Their recollection of the experience will also differ because of this, and because each will impose his or her own self-perceptions and distortions of reality on the remembrance of the event. It is the compilation of memories of past human-like, or wholly and distinctly human, behaviors that comprises the human Self, and not the experiences that have yet to happen. It means the difference between resting the criterion for personhood on an actual characteristic versus a non-existent characteristic (Personhood = Something, as opposed to Nothing).
Also, the notion that it’s wrong to kill humans who have memories and have consciously experienced life in the past preserves rights for those who’s future experiences may not be very human-like (What if their future consists of living like an animal or in a comatose state?), or may be non-existent (as in, “Am I allowed to kill a person by shooting them a fraction of a second before they get hit by a bus?”). Finally, Marquis is forced to rest his qualifications for personhood on the likelihood of full-growth fruition or the probability of development. In other words, he would most likely ascribe the word “murder” to a scenario in which someone destroyed an embryo frozen in liquid nitrogen at an IVF clinic. It’s highly possible that the likelihood of many of the embryos in cold storage will never have a human-like experience, either due to the fact that they will not be implanted in a womb, or once they are implanted, they will fail to develop, or they will be chosen for selective reduction. So Marquis is left with the awkward implication that it may not be “as wrong” to kill an ex utero embryo as it would be to kill an in utero embryo, due to the latter’s greater likelihood of future experience. And this is weird. I mean, my rights are not lost or reduced based on my location, so why should anything else’s right to live be dependent on its location? It seems as if an entity should either possess a right or not possess a right… not possess a partial right or the likelihood of a right based on the statistical chances for development and thus human experience. Don’t get me wrong, laws of probability are great… for math and baseball, but not necessarily for rights theory.
Rights should be based on current and actual characteristics, not future and thus non-existent characteristics. And if any characteristic should be the basis for rights as crucial as the right to live or the right to autonomy, it should be the characteristic that comprises our unique Selves. When we ask, “Why should I have a right to live?” it makes sense to quip the follow-up stipulation, “Well, that depends who’s asking…” and then the query, “Who are You?” For if every living being possessed the world’s most important right, protection from murder, issues of personhood would not exist at all, and humans, cows, mice and flies would all possess equal rights to continued existence. Instead, conscious humans are uniquely capable of setting themselves apart from the creature crowd and establishing themselves as unique personalities with hopes, dreams, talents, fears, urges, desires, concerns, ideals, causes, loves, attachments, and connections, all based on the integration of experience into memory. The inability to do this should be viewed as a disqualification from personhood and therefore, the right to live. What matters is, not the potential or likelihood of future memory organization and access, but one’s current and actualized ability to carry out memory retrieval. This is what makes us who we are, and this is what separates us from all others, and makes us special, unique, and worthy of personhood.
Feel free to leave a reply using the form below!