Philosophers such as Singer emphasize self-awareness as essential to consciousness and somehow related to an individual's moral value.

These perspectives don't make a lot of sense to me.

  • Self-awareness is only a particular kind of awareness.
  • Self-awareness is not required to have other kinds of awareness. If you are focusing intently on one activity, "burning all of yourself up" in the activity in the Zen expression, you are not necessarily at that time actively practicing self-awareness.
  • If you have any kind of awareness at all, you are conscious.
  • When viewed as a cognitive function, self-awareness is the maintenance and use of a mental model of your body or mind. All vertebrates do this, at least for the body; for example, they need to have a model of where their feet are in order to walk.

Is there a good, firmly grounded justification for valuing self-awareness over other kinds of awareness, either as essential to consciousness or from a moral perspective?

  • 3
    Your second bullet is disputable. Since Kant self-consciousness is often considered a precondition for having unified conscious experience as such (for which he uses a verbose label of "transcendental unity of apperception"), regardless of whether one "intently focuses" on self or not, see SEP, Consciousness of Self. In any case, the psychological issue of where one's attention is focused is orthogonal to the cognitive issue of the role of self-consciousness in conscious experience, and hence in personhood and moral agency.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 0:49
  • 1
    @Conifold A potentially defensible perspective, but why is "self consciousness often considered a precondition for having unified conscious experience?" Has anyone clearly articulated a reason? And when one is not focusing on oneself, what basis is there for claiming one still has self-awareness anyway, or claiming that it's still important or central?
    – causative
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 3:41
  • 2
    @Conifold I wonder if philosophers pushing this perspective have simply made the following mistake: any time they are philosophizing about consciousness, they are actively practicing self-awareness. And so they conclude self-awareness must be essential to consciousness. Every time they look inwards for self-awareness they find it, because looking inwards creates it...
    – causative
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 4:38
  • 1
    Self-awareness is essential for blinding us to the fact that the universe does not exist. Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 3:33
  • 1
    Bullet 1: "is only a particular kind of awareness": No. It is the most important, because it determines the way you interact with everything else you are aware of, and so, it determines your survival (ergo, the rules of group survival: morals).
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 4:58

6 Answers 6


I will present an opposing view which is one of the widely accepted views in the study of consciousness (and self-awareness).

Let's consider the common distinction between access consciousness (A-C) and phenomenal consciousness (P-C) that Ned Block famously made in 1995 1. There is a good overall summary and debate paper written on the topic by M. Overgard:

In consciousness research, it is common to distinguish between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. Recently, a number of scientists have attempted to show that phenomenal content can be empirically separated from cognitive access and, accordingly, that the mental content that is accessed is not (always) identical to the content that is experienced. One notable position is that of Ned Block who suggests that phenomenal content overflows cognitive access.

(P-C) Phenomenal consciousness:

refers to what it is like to be in a particular mental state. Examples, such as the experience of the redness of red, the taste of coffee, the sound of music, have often been used to explain the meaning of the term.

(A-C) Access consciousness:

is available for use in reasoning and for direct control of action and speech. For Block, reportability is both of great practical importance and at the same time a ‘test’ of A-consciousness: information that is in A-consciousness is, according to Block, reportable.

And the definition of "overflow":

‘overflow’ refers to the situation where a mental state is not poised to be used for direct control—including reporting—yet is still experienced.

This led many cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind (i.e. lately Chalmers) to also use slightly different terminology and distinguish consciousness from meta-consciousness:

Periodically attention is directed towards explicitly assessing the contents of experience. The resulting meta-consciousness involves an explicit re-representation of consciousness in which one interprets, describes or otherwise characterizes the state of one’s mind.

Meta-consciousness is then a phenomenal consciousness under no "overflow" conditions. If this is accepted, it then follows that it is possible to have experience without self-consciousness or self-reflection (contra-Singer).

Consider a thought experiment. You drive a car from LA to NYC. It is an incredibly long ride. You finally get to NYC. How much of the ride can you recall? Not much; you can't recall every conscious moment. You remember the most important moments i.e. the confusing crossing, the broken lights (etc). But because you don't recall most of the ride, it does not follow that you were unconscious. Far from it. You were directly experiencing moment by moment of your fare, possibly also in a very focused manner. It only follows that you reflect (or self-reflect) on some conscious states and not the others. This mature self-reflection on conscious states is meta-consciousness and it is what we mean by consciousness in ordinary, everyday talk.

Indeed, some more basic lifeforms might represent only the most basic form of consciousness without self-reflection on its experiential states. There is also some research that shows that self-reflection seems to be strongly correlated with linguistic capacity in babies. Toddlers form first memories as soon as they start to use and understand their linguistic capacities; namely, the abilities to describe and tokenize the external and internal world. But, would you call your one-year-old unconscious? I don't think so.

Further reading:

  • +1. Thanks for the link!
    – J D
    Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 12:03
  • 1
    It is amusing to see that people finally catch up to what philosophers who were also biologists like Uexküll and Plessner knew and wrote a century earlier...of course many animals are conscious in a meaningful way without being self-conscious. The framing of these terms is still poor in contemporary literature, especially in philosophy.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 7:40

We picture intelligence principally, as being able to make accurate predictions, especially as regards problem solving. At the point a complex self-model with intentions can be held in mind (rather than just bodily awareness, proprioception etc) something interesting happens, a feedback loop. If you decide to be this kind of person: you can expect such & such outcomes; if another kind: different outcomes - instead of simply predicting outcomes of actions, adjusting the self-model (character, superego, etc) can change future sets of possible outcomes, and imagining future outcomes of a way of living, can inform how we choose to live. This level of self knowledge is the beginning of choosing how to be, who to be.

To support this, I'd look to Dunbar's Number & how human intelligence seems to have emerged mainly for navigating our social landscape & intentions of others, rather than mainly problem solving (like cephalopods & corvids which are solitary or have small social groups). We jumpstart our learning by mirroring others, using specialised 'mirror neurons'. Looking for intentions, and mirroring behaviours, which gives us intersubjectivity: projecting ourselves into the situation of others, because that helps predict them - and, causes us to need to understand our own intentions, and go beyond mirroring into true understanding of physical activities (chimps who don't creche-rear young seem to have less mirror neurons, and struggle to learn by imitation in adulthood). These are also feedback loops, as illustrated in the Buddhist metaphor Indra's Net.

So, having a self-model which can be changed through volition, is key to being truly responsible for your volitions, and character; to moving beyond conditioning by experience and biology like a meat-robot. Feedback allows novel and unpredictable emergent behaviour to occur, in complex systems of all kinds.

The most compelling model for minds to me, is Hofstadter's strange-loop idea, where feedback loops that include self-models in the way described are crucial.

I go into more detail about the themes and approaches mentioned in this post here

According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?

  • Yes, a high level of self-awareness is important for effective cognitive function in humans. But is it a requirement for consciousness? Does it have moral value?
    – causative
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 6:32
  • I'm relating it to responsibility, autonomy, and intentionality, the basis required for moral actions, and so moral value. A human in a permanent vegetative state can feel physical pain, but not make decisions. Singer would place the moral value of self-aware animals over a non-self-aware human. For me the value arises from self-value/preferenc + intersubjectivity, as expressed eg in the Golden Rule, or Rawl's theory of justice - these appeal as moral guides because of intersubjectivity + our self-worth. Extending intersubjectivity to all humans = moral progress, similarly to capable animals
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 7:22

For me self-awareness occurs in one's soul, while other awareness (perception or consciousness) occur somewhere else. You may see some blood flowing around at a battle field and thus aware of it, but later once you realize it's "your" blood bleeding, your reaction will differ a lot and later may save you. This is the importance of self-awareness. In other words, mind without self-awareness is like an army without a true commander...

This was also emphasized in Leibniz's Monadology that a person is composed of infinitely numerous monads of different types, among them is a single dominant soul monad which is the source of vitality, seriousness, and will.

  • You use the example of seeing your own blood flowing. Any vertebrate will be able to react to damage to itself in an effective way - chiefly by getting away from the cause of damage, and perhaps also by avoiding putting too much strain on the injured area (limping) or licking its wounds. This seems to be the animal acting like it is "an army with a commander" as you describe, but do you draw a distinction between this and self-awareness?
    – causative
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 3:54
  • According to monadology, advanced animal such as vertebrate has a self-awareness soul, plants only have perception monads but lacking soul, a stone has only bare monads. And there's no distinction between licking vertebrate' self-awareness and human's self-awareness. My above example just wants to highlight the importance of self-awareness and other common awareness, those flowing into and out of one's soul make dominant impression. The real distinction between human and animal is animal lacks rational mind to operate Platonic realm's knowledge, logic and reasoning which transcend one's soul.. Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 4:43
  • ...a much more interesting case involving human only is that sometimes the rational mind will shadow the soul and suppress the sole commander such that one's self-awareness becomes dormant by all its coverings. For example, when I'm indulged in writing rational responses I may become more like a machine. If this case continues for a long time, it may cause depression... Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 5:06

You seem to be asking why self awareness is necessary for any awareness, and so consciousness.

I could be conscious of an apple which does not belong to my own mind. But arguably my intentional relations essentially involve a primitive consciousness of what we expect and remember, which seems to fit under your definition of 'self awareness'. Bringing zen into may be unhelpful, as zen is traditionally thought of as an exit from language (or at least that enlightenment cannot be represented in language). That may not mean any kind of mind, a bat's, involves self consciousness.

But anyway, without self awareness we may have no language, and that may at least be necessary for moral capacity, if not value, even if without any of these there is still an experience of the world, pleasure and pain etc..

  • Hello! Just thought I'd say welcome. Welcome to SE Philosophy! Thanks for your contribution. Please take a quick moment to take the tour or find help. You can perform searches here or seek additional clarification at the meta site. Don't forget, when someone has answered your question, you can click on the arrow to reward the contributor and the checkmark to select what you feel is the best answer.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 11:29


I have little interest in ethics (type, not token!). I only have one book by Singer, but his philosophy comes from a scientific preoccupation with the nature of consciousness in animals as a path to understanding morality as his advocacy for more legal rights for animals attest. Since you invoke Singer, I'll approach the question from a naturalized epistemology on this as he does the same. I'll sketch what I believe to be a "generic consensus" of grounding self-awareness as fundamental to the manifestation of sophisticated morality. I personally believe that consciousness isn't entailed in any strict sense by self-awareness-as-theory, so I'll let that matter to others.

Short Answer

Is there a good, firmly grounded justification for valuing self-awareness over other kinds of awareness, either as essential to consciousness or from a moral perspective?

Yes. Human eusociality reaches a pinnacle in mechanism in the form of morality which is a blend of animal religious behavior founded on psychological altruism combined with human reason and language use which allows for a gradation of moral expression culminating in the application of universal principles such as Kant's categorical imperative. In philosophical terms, one might consider there being a spectrum of morality from pre-linguistic emotivism to a fully cognized ethic. One such example of a gradation is Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development.

Long Answer

Instead of rehashing Singer's positions downwards into the grounding theory, let's start with the notion of animal proto-religiosity and work our way up, tracing a semi-reductionist view of the interrelation of ontologies from biology, up to psychology, up to ethics. (This, of course, is no surprise given his thoughts in Consilience.)

First, we start with sociobiology in the form of Edward O. Wilson, the founder of the discipline, whose book On Human Nature, reformulates his earlier work for understanding how biological teleology (SEP) can be used to explain altruism (recognizing a distinction between biological and psychological varieties). His other fascinating book, The Social Conquest of Earth, shows the consequences of how altruism impacts social organization. This is a tremendous accomplishment because it serves as a bridge between morality and evolution, especially because E.O. Wilson came from a religious fundamentalist background and read the Bible cover-to-cover carrying his fascination with morality into the hard sciences. But, there's a better body of work to show more immediately how morality is grounded in self-awareness, and that is the work of a noted primatologist, Frans de Waal.

The most thorough expression I've found on this matter are books like Primates and Philosophers and The Bonobo and the Athiest by de Waal who is a preeminent primatologist and reflects a lot on the origins of morality. From The Bonobo and the Atheist on page 235:

Our moral codes apply fully only within the group, be it a language group, a nonliterate population that shares the same piece of real estate or the same ethnic identity, or a nation.

This quotation is an obvious recognition of in-group-out-group moral thinking, and extends from the logic raised by sociobiologists in regards to how biological altruism leads to psychological altruism. Both books, as well as others like his book on Chimpanzee political behavior, make for an extremely compelling argument that dominance hierarchies are more maintained by altruism than by force. The best chimp alphas, for example, are peacemakers and behave in such a way to unify their bands by behaving fairly. Unless one has some academic blindness to animal behavior, this is consistent with human behavior.

So, from biology to altruism is half the journey. We can trace a philosophical arc citing literature on intentionality and the philosophy of language, most contemporaneously through Searle and Tomasello, but I'll presume you have some familiarity with these philosophical notions broadly. What is important to take from their work is that with the appearance of consciousness and communication, language steps in to provide a mechanism for the exchange of information about mental states, which exists for all except the strictest of behaviorists, or course. (Yuk, yuk.)

This lands us squarely in ethics, which is seen by de Waal as the application of cognitive processes (in the narrow sense) to emotional impulses of altruism. Therefore, systems of ethics don't just explain intelligent behavior, but are arguments that justify philosophical action (being no small irony that epistemologists sometimes borrow ethical theories for forging analogs). These sets of ideas are ontological correlates, right? Those of mind and body. Now, the variety of ethical positions is a book in itself. What's important to think about is to what extent ethics and morality are grounded in psychology, and countless psychologists explicate the topic.

Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment was an illuminating incident in moral flexibility, and even has a decent movie made about it, but perhaps one of the more famous psychologists who has explored morality specifically is Lawrence Kohlberg who had a taxonomy of morality starting right here in Chicago. From WP's article on the stages of development:

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)

       5. Social contract orientation
       6. Universal ethical principles

               (Principled conscience)

At stage 6, the pinnacle of morality, Kohlberg ties together ethics and conscience both of which are most sophisticated when articulated from a perspective of self-awareness, which might be most famously articulated in the form of the Golden Rule.


You asked for a justification for the importance of self-awareness to consciousness (I declined) and morality, and where we end is where morality and self-awareness intersect, from the WP:

The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in most religions and cultures.1 It can be considered an ethic of reciprocity in some religions, although different religions treat it differently.

And it's tough to reciprocate if you cannot reflect, because as Dunning-Kruger has shown about consciousness, it's difficult to model a theory of mind of others, particularly moving past a folk psychology. Self-awareness, then, maybe the primary mechanism by which to build a pragmatic set of universalist principles of ethics, as Kohlberg recognizes. From there, whether you prefer Spinoza, Confucious, or the mighty Kant, it's merely a disputation of metaphysical presupposition.


I would like to suggest some ideas. Self-awareness seems to be: me thinking actively about what I am experiencing, doing and so on. But I think it is a range, from this most self-aware, down through more autonomic self-knowledge, like you mentioned in terms of animals walking. Consciousness also is not all or nothing, but ranges downward.

Recent research suggests that the brain predicts everything, and then uses a kind of error response algorithm to adjust. This is true for autonomic functions, and everything higher up the scale of mental function. Humor is basically the error function barfing. (ha ha) We predict our way through life, like Newton-Raphson for everything.

Awareness is not one singular point of view. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can drive a car, adjust the radio, have a conversation and plan dinner, all at the same time. All 5 senses can be engaged at once. Personally, I have had 3 pieces of music playing in my mind at the same time, while doing other things. The point of this is that there can be many smaller centers of awareness simultaneously. This is actually the norm.

So even invoking the word self-awareness is sort of a tautology. All awareness is prediction, and therefore of the self. What else would it be about? And with 100 billion neurons all running in parallel, there couldn't possibly be only one thing going on at a time. It would be like one car on the LA freeway.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .