What is a Human Conscious Experience and Do All Conscious Humans Have It?: A Reply to Destiny’s View of Personhood

Over the summer, the Whatever Podcast hosted two debates on YouTube with streamer and political commentator Destiny defending the abortion-choice position. His first debate featured Live Action’s Lila Rose and Students for Life’s Kristan Hawkins defending the pro-life position, and his second debate was with pro-life apologist Trent Horn. In both debates, Destiny’s position seemed to be the following:

What we value in human beings is their capability for human consciousness. This is what determines whether or not a biological human is a human person—someone with moral value who has rights and to whom we have obligations. Without some capacity for human consciousness, there is no “someone” who has rights, and therefore, they cannot be harmed in any morally relevant way.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Now, according to this view, we declare someone dead when they no longer have a capacity for human consciousness in the future. So Destiny makes a symmetry argument, saying that if someone stops being a person when they no longer have the capacity for human consciousness and future human conscious experiences, then something starts being a human being once it has an actual capacity for human consciousness and human conscious experience. In other words, something is a person beginning with the moment human conscious experience is possible up until the moment it no longer has the capacity for human conscious experience. A fetus that does not have the actual capacity for human consciousness and has not had a human conscious experience is not a person. The fetus only has its first human conscious experience and gains an actual capacity for human consciousness, and subsequently a right to life, at around 20–24 weeks when the proper “parts” are developed from which human consciousness (by argument) emerges.

What About Animals and Infants?

Horn’s argument against Destiny’s position is that a criterion for personhood and moral value based on the possession of human consciousness is either too strict (and would allow for infanticide) or too broad (and would include non-human animals). For example, if human consciousness means high cognitive reasoning above the level of non-human animals, then newborn infants would be disqualified from being persons and having moral value. Since there are many non-human animals (e.g., dolphins and pigs) that are smarter and, in a sense, more conscious than newborn infants, those infants are not persons with a right to life. Thus, infanticide is morally permissible.

On the other hand, if human consciousness means just the capacity to feel pleasure and pain or perceive the world, then non-human animals like squirrels or rats would be considered persons and have a right to life. Neither option seems acceptable.

Destiny’s response is that what matters is human consciousness. What matters is not just that a subject has consciousness, but that the kind of consciousness a subject has is human consciousness. An animal may have consciousness, even complex consciousness, but it never rises to the level of a human conscious experience. On the contrary, according to Destiny, a 20–24 week old human fetus immediately has a human consciousness, even if it is less complex than an animal’s consciousness. They do not go from “lizard consciousness” to “dolphin consciousness” to human consciousness. It is this uniquely human conscious experience that grants personhood to 20–24 week old human fetuses, newborn human infants, and human adults.

A Definitional Seesaw 

One problem with Destiny’s definition of personhood, which Horn pointed out in the debate and subsequent interviews, is that Destiny seems to appeal to consciousness to exclude embryonic humans and early-stage human fetuses, but then appeals to human consciousness to exclude animals from the broad definition of consciousness. When the case for the personhood of embryonic human beings gets made, Destiny sits on the consciousness side of the seesaw. When the case for animal personhood is made, he sits on the human side of the seesaw.

If Destiny sits on the former side of the seesaw, without recourse to human nature, then he gets into trouble by having either a too strict or too broad definition of consciousness, as seen above. But if he leans into the human side of the seesaw, then it seems that what is doing the heavy lifting for the definition is the human element. But if the humanity of the subject is more important than the subject’s conscious experience, then this seems to be just the pro-life view of personhood and moral value—that is, a subject has moral value and is a person not in virtue of what she can do, but in virtue of the kind of thing she is. If she is a human being with a human nature, she is the kind of thing that intrinsically has rational capabilities (even if she can’t use those rational capabilities right now), and she is therefore deserving of human rights, the right to life being the most primary of all of her rights.

Ultimately, the definition Destiny offers is both ad hoc (designed to reach a predetermined conclusion) and speciesist. The criterion of consciousness is added to the term “human” only to prevent human fetuses in their first trimester of biological development from being considered persons. Destiny seems to implicitly recognize the value most human beings have (even if he claims to be a relativist about morality), but he does not want to grant this value to early-stage human fetuses so that abortion can remain permissible during that time. The only way to get around this while using “human” as the personhood-granting feature is by adding the criterion of consciousness to “being human” in an ad hoc fashion in order to escape the conclusion that first trimester human fetuses are persons.

On the other hand, the definition is speciesist because Destiny adds the criterion “human” to the term “consciousness” in order to prevent other animals that have consciousness from being considered persons. Thus, he claims it is not just consciousness but human consciousness that matters, but there doesn’t seem to be any principled reason, on Destiny’s view, for saying human consciousness is worth protecting but not consciousness in general. At worst, the criterion of human consciousness is unfair and discriminatory, solely preventing most animals (or non-human aliens, such as Vulcans, who would pretty clearly be persons) from being considered persons with value.

Human Conscious Experience vs Humans Having a Conscious Experience

During the debate, Horn made a good point (that was quickly overlooked by Destiny and then abandoned for the rest of the debate) regarding the distinction between a “human conscious experience” and “humans that have a conscious experience.” At about an hour and forty-three minutes into the debate, Horn pushes back against Destiny’s argument and says that Destiny’s position does not seem to be that a newborn infant is a person worthy of legal protection because of his human conscious experience. The newborn is a person worthy of legal protection because is a human who is having a conscious experience. Destiny asserts that any human who has a conscious experience is having a human conscious experience. But unless Destiny elaborates more on what a human conscious experience is, it is not clear how he comes to this position.

There is an old distinction in philosophy between “human acts” and “acts of a human.” Not every act that a human performs is a specifically human act. Humans blink, breathe, scratch themselves, and perform many other acts without giving them a second thought. These are acts done by a human, but they are not properly human acts. If this were the case, any animal who blinks, breathes, or performs any other act that a human performs would also be performing a human act. But that is clearly not true. They are performing acts that humans also happen to perform. What makes an act a uniquely human act, according to Horn and others, is that it proceeds from reason and will. In other words, uniquely human acts are performed in virtue of a human’s unique capacity to freely act for a certain end he intentionally wants to achieve. Animals (and even fetuses and newborn infants) cannot perform human acts because they don’t have the immediate capacity for human reason (the ability to think of universal concepts, perform abstract thinking, and perform syllogistic reasoning).

Horn raises a similar example when asking Destiny if every time a human speaks, it is human speech that the human speaks. (Try saying that five times fast!) Uniquely human speech includes things like grammar, syntax, etc. But if I make monkey noises with my mouth, these sounds aren’t human speech. Destiny implicitly seems to admit this point but says that when a human speaks, it is always a human speaking. This is true, but it’s true as a tautology. This just means that it’s true because a human speaking is always a human speaking. But as Horn argues, a human speaking doesn’t mean that the speech is human speech. Returning to consciousness, it may be true that a human having a conscious experience is a human having a conscious experience,but it doesn’t follow that a human having a conscious experience is therefore having a uniquely human conscious experience.

So how do you get from a human having a conscious experience to having a uniquely human conscious experience? You first need to define exactly what a uniquely human conscious experience is. We know that not all speech a human speaks is human speech, because human speech requires certain unique things (eg. syntax, grammar, etc.) Because we know human speech requires these things, we know that even though animals and humans can both make similar noises and “speak”, only humans can properly perform human speech (and not even all humans as newborn infants cannot perform human speech). Thus, this kind of speech is fundamentally different from anything animals or infants can express. Similarly, we know that not all acts a human performs are uniquely human acts, because human acts require reason and will. And because we know what human acts require in order for them to be human acts, we know that even though both humans and animals can perform many of the same acts (eg. breathing, blinking, etc.), animals (and infants) cannot perform specifically human acts.

Therefore, just because humans have a conscious experience, it does not follow that they are having a human conscious experience. Destiny must first define or state what is required to have a human conscious experience, and how this experience is unique from an animal conscious experience in general, before we can determine whether or not any given human is in fact having the kind of conscious experience that is a human conscious experience. But because Destiny does not define human conscious experience in the debate at all, we don’t know what it means, for him, for a human to have a uniquely human conscious experience. The above examples should show then that just because a human has consciousness, it does not necessarily mean that he has human consciousness.

Notice, too, that uniquely human acts and human speech, as we have described them, can be performed by older humans, but they can be performed neither by animals nor infants. Animals, human infants, and older humans can make noises, but of those only older humans can make noises that count as human speech acts. Animals, human infants, and older humans can perform actions, but only older humans can perform properly human actions. So it seems that if Destiny could define what a human conscious experience is, it is unlikely that it would include infants (and 20–24 week old fetuses). Given what we have seen, the most likely conclusion we may draw given a definition of a uniquely human conscious experience is that animals, human infants, and human adults can have a conscious experience, but only humans with high cognitive abilities can have a human conscious experience. But that would mean human infants are not persons, and infanticide would be permissible.

However, absent a definition of a human conscious experience, Destiny’s argument does seem to be that what makes a human a person worthy of legal protection is not that he has a human conscious experience, but that he is a human who has a conscious experience. This is just one classic example of an ad hoc “human-plus” argument. You can find ERI’s response to these arguments on the blog. If this is the case, then we are back to square one. Does Destiny mean conscious experience in the strict sense, or in the broad sense? If in the broad sense, then animals are persons too because they have a conscious experience. If in the strict sense, then infants are not persons because they do not have a conscious experience.


In summary, Destiny’s argument faces the following three major problems. First, there is the seesaw problem. If “consciousness” does the heavy lifting in the definition for personhood, it will either be too strict and exclude newborn infants or too broad and include animals. If “human” does the heavy lifting, then this seems to justify the pro-life position and/or fall prey to charges of speciesism or being ad hoc. Second, Destiny has not shown that just because a human has a conscious experience that he therefore has a human conscious experience. This is due to a failure to define what is meant by a “human conscious experience.” Third, even if Destiny can define what a human conscious experience is, it seems likely that such a definition would exclude the kind of consciousness newborn infants have, which would then permit infanticide.

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The post What is a Human Conscious Experience and Do All Conscious Humans Have It?: A Reply to Destiny’s View of Personhood originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.” 

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Nick is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, studying for his Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.). His area of concentration is in moral theology. He works as a TA in the theology department at Notre Dame and he is a Sorin Fellow at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. Before attending Notre Dame, Nick received his B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from Drew University where he defended his undergraduate thesis on bodily rights arguments for abortion. Upon graduation, Nick worked for the Thomistic Institute in Washington D.C. as part of the institute's Junior Fellows Program. Nick has been published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. There, you can find his latest publication titled "Teleology and the Problem of Bodily-Rights Arguments." In his free time, Nick enjoys reading books on philosophy and theology. He is particularly interested in ancient and medieval philosophy, especially in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. He hopes to use Aquinas' work to help the modern world navigate through complex moral and ethical issues. Nick is excited to be an intern for the Equal Rights Institute and help forward the pro-life message.

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