We should not prioritize life without consciousness

On March 15, Gilbert Meilaender, a religion professor and prominent voice in the realm of bioethics, gave a lecture on the ethics of palliative sedation. Meilaender posited that because palliative sedation does not aim to cause death, like its taboo alternative euthanasia, it can be an ethical way for a chronically suffering and terminally ill patient to spend the last moments, days or weeks of his/her life.

“Meilaender’s greatest blunder is his underselling of consciousness. Indeed, the only reason we care about anything is because of consciousness. There is no suffering without consciousness. There is no joy without consciousness.” – Iain Carlos ’20

To Meilaender, even though palliative sedation “sacrifices the good of consciousness,” consciousness is not as great of a good as life, and while Christians are required to not end their own lives, which of course renders euthanasia off limits, Christians are permitted to choose how they would like to spend the last moments of their life. This renders palliative sedation as permissible. There are many problems with Meilaender’s moral reasoning here, and his popularity in the realm of bioethics should be a wake up call to all that we must purge the influence of faith on public policy and general moral reasoning.

Meilaender’s greatest blunder is his underselling of consciousness. Indeed, the only reason we care about anything is because of consciousness. There is no suffering without consciousness. There is no joy without consciousness. There is no experience of any kind without consciousness. Without consciousness, we cannot build any sort of moral structure, because any conceivable notion of good and evil cannot exist. Note that non-conscious life can, and does, exist, and is meaningless outside of how it affects conscious beings. How worried are you about the well-being of individual bacteria? Consciousness is the only thing that separates us and other sentient creatures from machines, and it is a greater good than life

This becomes clearer with a thought experiment. Imagine watching an ant be ripped limb from limb. Then imagine the same thing happening to a lobster. Then a mouse. Then a dog. Then a monkey. Then a human. We should be more pained as we go up the hierarchy of consciousness. Indeed, it is consciousness that drives us against suffering, and as the nature of the conscious system becomes more complex, the more we care about its well-being.

Meilaender’s prioritizing of life over consciousness was not reasoned to beyond faith. He cleverly evaded any questions that prodded him to explain what good life is without consciousness. The best he could do was say Christians are required to not end their own lives and that is that. Of course, this gets us nowhere quickly. I can make this argument about anything. I could declare that celibacy is a greater good than consciousness, and when you try to argue with me, I can remind you my position is supported by an all-powerful divine entity. There are any number of ridiculous claims that one can stake on the basis of faith, and as such, faith should have no place in public policy making or moral reasoning.

I am happy that Meilaender spoke at St. Olaf, however, because it was a wake up call to me and I hope it was a wake up call to my peers that faith and dogma still carry far too much weight in our societal decision making. Even if Meilaender is only staking his claims in the realm of Christianity and his own works, his influence on greater bioethics is worrisome.

I am still unsure about my position on palliative sedation because I do not know how exactly it affects consciousness. Does it put us in a different state? A diminished state? Are we experiencing anything at all? Meilaender never discussed any of this. What I will say is that if a patient is sedated to the point of having no conscious experience, and this is the way she will live until she dies, that amount of life is morally indistinguishable from euthanasia, as conscious life is the only life we should care about. Without consciousness, we are nothing more than organic machines.

Iain Carlos ’20 (irwin2@stolaf.edu) is from Chicago, Ill. He majors in music and religion.