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Sunday, February 12, 2023

The scientific study of consciousness cannot, and should not, be morally neutral

Mazor, M., Brown, S., et al. (2021, November 12). 
Perspectives on psychological science.
Advance online publication.


A target question for the scientific study of consciousness is how dimensions of consciousness, such as the ability to feel pain and pleasure or reflect on one’s own experience, vary in different states and animal species. Considering the tight link between consciousness and moral status, answers to these questions have implications for law and ethics. Here we point out that given this link, the scientific community studying consciousness may face implicit pressure to carry out certain research programmes or interpret results in ways that justify current norms rather than challenge them. We show that since consciousness largely determines moral status, the use of non-human animals in the scientific study of consciousness introduces a direct conflict between scientific relevance and ethics – the more scientifically valuable an animal model is for studying consciousness, the more difficult it becomes to ethically justify compromises to its well-being for consciousness research. Lastly, in light of these considerations, we call for a discussion of the immediate ethical corollaries of the body of knowledge that has accumulated, and for a more explicit consideration of the role of ideology and ethics in the scientific study of consciousness.

Here is how the article ends:

Finally, we believe consciousness researchers, including those working only with consenting humans, should take an active role in the ethical discussion about these issues, including the use of animal models for the study of consciousness. Studying consciousness, the field has the responsibility of leading the way on these ethical questions and of making strong statements when such statements are justified by empirical findings. Recent examples include discussions of ethical ramifications of neuronal signs of fetal consciousness (Lagercrantz, 2014) and a consolidation of evidence for consciousness in vertebrate animals, with a focus on livestock species, ordered by the European Food and Safety Authority (Le Neindre et al., 2017). In these cases, the science of consciousness provided empirical evidence to weigh on whether a fetus or a livestock animal is conscious. The question of animal models of consciousness is simpler because the presence of consciousness is a prerequisite for the model to be valid. Here, researchers can skip the difficult question of whether the entity is indeed conscious and directly ask, “Do we believe that consciousness, or some specific form or dimension of consciousness, entails moral status?”

It is useful to remind ourselves that ethical beliefs and practices are dynamic: Things that were considered
acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable today.  A relatively recent change is that to the status of nonhuman great apes (gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and orangutans) such that research on great apes is banned in some countries today, including all European Union member states and New Zealand. In these countries, drilling a hole in chimpanzees’ heads, keeping them in isolation, or restricting their access to drinking water are forbidden by law. It is a fundamental question of the utmost importance which differences between animals make some practices acceptable with respect to some animals and not others. If consciousness is a determinant of moral status, consciousness researchers have a responsibility in taking an active part in this discussion—by providing scientific observations that either justify current ethical standards or induce the scientific and legal communities to revise these standards.