Additional Thoughts on Sentience

Last week, I offered my opinion—a less-than-complementary one—on the decision of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) to make a position statement that includes “the concept of animals as sentient beings.” My critique was based on the difficulty of assessing degrees of sentience in a very wide range of animals, making the broadness of the statement look like shabby ethical work, and its implicit agenda, avoiding direct mention of animal rights while using a term that is loaded with portent for the issuance of rights, perhaps indecipherable from the rights of human beings (a committed “anti-speciesist” like Peter Singer could be practically giddy!). Now to unpack that a bit…

There is no doubt that non-human animals display varying levels of sentience (just as human beings can, incidentally—try offering a no-anesthesia circumcision to anyone but a newborn baby boy). They have varying capacities for emotions and pain perception, based on varying levels of mental sophistication. One comment on my earlier post correctly stated that sentience is a capacity, and while capacity is a very poor way to measure the moral worth of humans, it may be one of many very fine ways to assess the moral status of non-human animals. But the “bright line” of separation must remain.

Even in the absence of a theological doctrine of humanity, the idea that human beings are moral agents and that a non-human animal, even if appropriately granted a substantial degree of moral status, is incapable of being a moral agent is significant. This is where a designation of “sentience” suffers from being both too broad and too narrow at the same time. In the first sense, it offers some implausibility. What about the practical implications of AAHA’s statement? Is animal slaughter humane enough, or should animals that we use for food be anesthetized beforehand? If I meet a grizzly on the path, should I have every expectation that his sentience means that we can work out a mutually-beneficial arrangement for our flourishing as we go our separate ways? In the second sense, that of narrowness, the intrinsic value of my humanity may, ironically, be diminished. Is my compassion for animals more a reflection of their power, their rights if you will, or a mark of my humanity? The California Veterinary Medical Association welfare guidelines issued in 2004 identified animals as “sentient beings with wants and needs.” Okay, fine. So how do we avoid a stalemate with humans who seem to have “wants and needs,” too, and often can make more articulate cases for them that even a well-socialized terrier? We are focusing on moral objects and not moral agents here, and not much can get done that way.

I would have been far more supportive of a position statement that was anthropological in nature, even as it included language that addressed the varying levels of sentience that animals may have. It is a practical reality that humane treatment for animals will arise from moral agents, humans alone, who realize that their Creator has made them to be wise stewards over creation, especially the vulnerable of their own species and the animals who share the Earth and much of the architecture of nervous systems with them.

Here’s what AAHA should have written, in my (clearly) less-than-humble-opinion:

“Because human beings have the unique role of moral agency and the awesome responsibility to ensure the welfare and flourishing of their own species, as well as the entirety of nature and the animals that we keep as companions and livestock and that inhabit the Earth we must wisely steward, we should take seriously the ability of animals to experience pain and other criteria associated with sentience in its various degrees among the wide range of neurological and mental sophistication that animals represent. It is this unique role that necessitates that humans should provide for physical and behavioral welfare to animals to the greatest degree possible, while minimizing pain and distress.”

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Jay Hollman
Jay Hollman
7 years ago

Good work and thinking. I believe that you are right on.