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.”

Animal Rights – A Sidenote

The recent blog by Dr. Steve Phillips led me to deeper thought (and this excursus) on the idea of moral status and moral agency. While his comments reflected on the significance that blurring the two concepts has had on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, it also has important implications for the idea of animal rights. Dr. Phillips addresses the writings of Mary Anne Warren, whose Moral Status- Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things, dedicated many words to animals.

Warren, a professor at San Francisco State University until her death in 2010, was a champion of the abortion rights cause. But she was also deeply influenced by Peter Singer’s views on animal liberation. She managed to avoid the inevitable outcome that Singer’s views would necessitate, specifically abolitionism of all animal confinement and human use. She has written of a “sliding scale” concept of animal rights that “…depends in part upon their sentience and mental sophistication.” In other words, she seems to use the ability of animals as moral agents to determine their moral status. While it is arguable that even higher non-human primates could be capable of moral agency, the level of mental sophistication of non-human animals seems, intuitively, like a reasonable way to address their level of welfare. I may be entirely unenthusiastic if my son chooses to go deer hunting but fine with a fishing trip. Others might find my distinctions illogical based on their own views, and that is okay. There is an inherent subjectivity to the moral status of animals, because they are, at least in Christian thought, not created in the same fashion as human beings. I daresay that this is a pretty palatable view of animal welfare and is what most people think, without really thinking, when approached with the idea of animal rights. I have, in fact, based the moral status of animals on their capacities, an altogether reasonable thing in the world of animals, while I cannot logically consider them moral agents, which Warren would seem to do. This is where her failure to differentiate the concepts muddies things.

If I lack the biblical distinction of the imago Dei (image of God) that distinguishes humans from non-human animals, don’t differentiate moral agency from moral status, and want to be consistent in the idea of animals as having variable levels of moral status, then I am forced to look at capacity as the basis for this status for everyone. This is the insidious nature of granting rights to animals, even “lesser rights,” however those can be quantified. Absent the imago Dei, I lose intellectual credibility when I say all human beings have the same moral status, but vary in their moral agency, but non-human animals vary in their moral status, and cannot be considered moral agents at all.

How, then, do we intellectually make exceptions for human beings? On this basis, we can’t. At some point, we are forced to make the rights of the human that are not in end-stage dementia, the unborn, and the profoundly mentally-handicapped submit to those of the cognitively superior, to the animals of greater “mental sophistication.”

Dr. Phillips has done a great service in distinguishing the concepts of moral status and moral agency. Be wary of those, like Mary Anne Warren, that do not.