In philosophy class, we were given a revision guide that listed philosophers for and against a list of viewpoints. Peter Singer was listed as "for" for the claim that "Consciousness is required to be considered a person", but "against" for the claim that "Self-consciousness is all that is required to be considered a person". I don't quite understand what is meant by this.

My initial understanding of Singer's view is pretty much summed up by this quote from here:

"Singer claims that in order to be 'persons' and to deserve moral consideration, beings must be self-aware, and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time."

To me, this sounds like what I would call self-consciousness, meaning Singer surely does believe self-consciousness is what is required to be considered a person. I brought this up to my teacher and he told me Singer believes consciousness is a spectrum, and anybody with consciousness, from animals to babies to functioning members of society have consciousness and are thus 'persons', but they are not all equally valuable as persons, rather those who can hold fewer preferences have less person-ness than those who can hold more. This kind of makes sense to me, but I'm not sure how this fits in with the original quote of persons must be "capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time", which still just sounds like self-consciousness to me.

So my question is: are these two explanations of Singer's views not contradictory? Can somebody please define self-consciousness so that it might be more clear how Singer can claim "that beings must be self-aware, and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time", without that meaning they just need to be self-conscious?



1 Answer 1


There are two layers mixed here (see this paper for reference):


Firstly, there is personhood. Personal life constitutes an almost incomparably high value:

Singer holds a non-speciesist view of ethics and does not consider human life to be of absolute value, but instead teaches that what has the most value is the life of the person (p. 127)

For personhood, we need at least the possibility of self-consciousness:

Since human persons exhibit self-consciousness and reason, non-human persons are animals which exhibit self-consciousness and reason, like chimpanzees as evinced by those that have been taught sign language. However, self-consciousness is notoriously difficult to ascertain in an other animal than the human. Thus, if we cannot be certain that a particular animal is self-conscious and rational, then that doubt should be enough for us to treat it as if it did (PE, 98). Hence, a person is a rational self-consciousness being, whether this rational self-consciousness is explicitly manifest or merely suspected. (ibid)

This means that for personhood, there is self-consciousness needed. This also means that not all animals are to be considered persons, ie. where it is clear that there is sentience (and thus consciousness), but certainly no sapience, there is no personhood and, consequently, no 'absolute' protection of their lives.

The value of non-personal animals and their lives

The above conclusion is but half of the truth, though:

However, the above marks only delineate why it is worse to kill persons than non- persons; we are still to treat (and most often protect) non-persons according to the strict utilitarian calculus of pain versus pleasure. We must then extend our concern to any sentient being, and Singer defines a sentient being as a being that can suffer (cf. PE, 102). (p. 129)

And since sentience is the same as being conscious in the sense of feeling and perceiving something, we do have to gradually protect them to the extent of their being able to feel/perceive what happens to them, since there is value to their feeling of pleasure and pain as well.


Your teacher was wrong in talking about personhood, but at the same time, there is kind of a continuum of "capacity for suffering and pleasure" which has to be valued. That is based on sentience, not sapience, though.

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