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


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 programs or interpret results in ways that justify current norms rather than challenge them. We show that because consciousness largely determines moral status, the use of nonhuman 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. Finally, 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.

Perspectives on Psychological Sciences