Sentience

While issues of animal rights and animal liberation have been hotly-debated in the public square and in philosophic discussions, national veterinary associations have walked on eggshells for decades, wanting to speak on issues of animal welfare, where consensus is far easier. Until recently. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), which is a group that represents 16,000 veterinarians as members and more than 5,500 veterinary practices, stepped into the fray this past fall with a position statement that stakes out a strong statement on the moral status of animals. It marks the first time that a national veterinary medical group has done so. But it does not use the words “rights” or even “moral status,” but, rather, addresses “sentience.” In the words of AAHA, animals are “feeling, sensing beings capable of sentiency.”

This statement comes from an organization for which I generally have great respect, one that focuses on small animal (generally pet) practice, where I do my work, and which has logistical and philosophical differences with large animal, particularly food animal, practice. They know how all of veterinary medicine is the same, and in what ways its various forms must necessarily differ. They have advocated for a higher standard of care for small animal practices and have genuinely helped advance the profession’s view of pain management and compassionate handling. But I am not alone in my bafflement of their decision to use a word pregnant with meaning, like “sentiency,” in the association’s official statement.

Specifically, the statement says, “The American Animal Hospital Association supports the concept of animals as sentient beings. Sentiency is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious or to have subjective experiences. Biological science as well as common sense supports the fact that the animals that share our lives are feeling, sensing beings that deserve thoughtful high-quality care. The care that is offered should provide for the animal’s physical and behavioral welfare and strive to minimize pain, distress and suffering for the animal.”

This definition of sentiency is fairly standard (it’s what Wikipedia opens with, for example). But it is confusing on a few levels as well. First, as others have noted, how do we define “animals”? The Executive Director says it should be interpreted as referring to companion animals, like dogs and cats, since that is the focus of AAHA’s efforts. But it doesn’t say that, and even “companion animals” include creatures that range from geckos and box turtles to mice and scorpions. This is sloppy work for a position statement that seeks to be both ground-breaking and (not too) comprehensive.

Second, sentiency is loaded with ethical and theological baggage. I can argue with some success that my patients seem to display wide-ranging emotions, have an ability to feel pain based on physiologic measures that are comparable to human beings, and certainly have memories of past events that contribute to the behaviors they display at a given moment. I cannot tell you that they have a will, or a sense of purpose, or actually whether they can suffer in the full metaphysical or spiritual sense that we know human beings can suffer. I am not willing to deny that it is possible for higher animals to suffer or have more complex emotional and mental capabilities than most think, rather than our own interpretation of their actions and responses that may be little more than anthropomorphism (which may itself reflect a more sophisticated spin on a good Disney film), but I will not claim to know it. I have never felt an ounce of desire to hunt, probably not so much because of the potential fear and pain for the hunted animal, though I don’t like that, but rather because of what it will do to my own soul. Call it my own version of “liberal guilt,” it has less to do with the animals than me, and explains why I can eat meat with little sadness even though it was once a living, breathing animal. For better (or likely worse) sentience may be translated “of human caliber.” And since we really only know our own kind, we must interpolate this to “animals.”

Finally, the clever use of “sentience” manages, at face value, to avoid the philosophical minefield of animal rights. But this is a Trojan horse. The great view of Peter’s Singer’s utilitarianism, the moral status of animals is equivalent to (or supersedes) humans based on ability to feel pain, is often distinguished from the more rights-based approach of someone like Tom Regan, where animals are “subjects-of-a-life,” biographical creatures. Sentience bridges the gap (artificial though it may be) and lends the credibility of organized veterinary medicine to both arguments. Sentience, as it will be popularly interpreted, will necessitate rights. I will gladly debate the moral status of animals, and work to see it addressed in my own work with state and national organizations. I am disappointed that the AAHA has taken the road they have, because I think it reflects both slipshod ethics and an emotional, sentimental path to what should have been an opportunity for an effective unity of philosophy and science.

Animal Rights, Part 2

Do animals have rights? If so, what are those rights, and how do they differ from humans? Should a lake trout have the same rights as a dairy cow as a chimpanzee? I mentioned in my previous blog that Christians have found difficulty assigning rights to animals, though many offer reasons with which I disagree. Secularists like Peter Singer (who, as a utilitarian that eschews such language, uses the notion of “rights” only to be a part of the dialogue) and Tom Regan (who considers “normal mammalian animals aged one or more” as possessors of the same intrinsic rights as humans) mount strong offensives in the battle for animal rights. While some of their more “out-there” ideas are met with skepticism by even their supporters, I am convinced that their deeper arguments are winning in the court of popular opinion. Why is this?
Singer’s approach addresses animal PAIN. This issue troubled C.S. Lewis and can bring us to tears in effective television advertisements for the Humane Society of the United States. We hate pain, and we especially hate it when the victims are so innocent. Regan looks at animals as “subjects-of-a-life;” animals have psychological capacities for desires, memories, and other “human” characteristics. Urbanized Western culture, as it becomes more removed from animals as food (I still hold that the beef I buy in shrink-wrap from the grocery is somehow picked from a “meat tree”), associates animals with pets or even the animated animals of film. Never mind that these animals are essentially humans in all but physical form.
I just returned from the World Veterinary Dermatology Congress (yes, there is such an event) in Vancouver. A Swiss veterinarian noted that skin allergies are often more pronounced in North American dogs because there is a more innate neurosis in these pets, creating more reactivity to allergens. They itch more obsessively. Her comment that “these dogs are basically treated as human toddlers” reflects on the humanization that we instill on, AND IN, our pets. It is little wonder that appeals from a utilitarian like Singer that tug at our dislike of all pain, animal or human, and a deontologist like Regan, that says that “higher” animals are really quite like us psychologically, can hold such sway.
I like the rebuttals of people like the University of Michigan’s Carl Cohen, who cuts through much of the intellectual and emotional fog to say that animals are intrinsically different from humans on the basis of personhood, and for whom the idea of rights makes no sense. Rights are of no use to animals because they inhabit a different moral sphere. “To say that rats have rights is to apply the world of rats a concept that makes very good sense when applied to humans, but makes no sense at all when applied to rats.”
In a practical sense, extending the same rights to animals as we extend to humans diminishes both. It means that animal husbandry cannot legitimately exist and that a cougar that attacks a hiker ought to defend her actions in court. Even the efforts of extraordinarily bright and sensitive Christian theologians to use the language of “limited rights” are probably misplaced. I am a proponent of assigning a strong moral status to the animals God has created; I don’t find the language of rights terribly helpful in doing so.

Animal Rights, Part I

I find it rather curious that in my line of work, as a veterinarian in small-animal clinical practice, I have very few conversations that tackle the issue of the rights of my animal patients. Maybe it’s because much of the legal landscape dictates the relationship we have with pets: I am still my dog’s “owner.” Harm that comes to a pet can lead to damages based entirely on the “replacement value” of the pet, not due to pain and suffering, or other subjective factors. Property rights, not moral rights, are where the law speaks.
As I have tried to draw my own conclusions on what rights, if any, animals may have, I largely read books with which I disagree, much to my dismay. Chief among these, of course, are the writings of Peter Singer. His notion of “speciesism,” a pejorative term that equates differentiation of value between humans and non-human animals (heretofore I’ll just call them “animals”) to be a great moral evil akin to racism and sexism, would seem to many to be a crackpot theory from an irrelevant, ivory tower philosophy professor. But the utilitarian idea espoused in Singer’s landmark Animal Liberation that equates the level of moral consideration of an individual, human or animal to be commensurate with the level of pain the creature may feel is probably more accepted in Western society than many of us realize. An entire branch of sociological study is dedicated to the “human-animal bond.” That bond is significant, and often a very positive force for human mental health and animal welfare. But we may have a greater emotional connection with a beloved pet than a dying relative, and unwittingly afford them moral status based on this emotional bond. More troubling, Singer’s radicalism is (surprisingly) fast becoming mainstream as the inherent dignity of human beings is undermined by ethical relativism and limitless personal autonomy.
But, as with many things, the reflexive response is unsatisfying as well. Christians who recoil at the subjugation of human dignity at the altar of animal liberation fail to understand our relationship to the animals God has created (and, indeed, all of creation) by misunderstanding Scripture. Much abuse can be heaped upon the Genesis 1:28 “dominion” mandate. In their view, the moral status of animals is utilitarian, but not Peter Singer’s utilitarianism. Animals were placed here for us, and we should enjoy what they provide for us without much concern for them beyond that.
But that, too, fails to understand the message of “dominion.” We are given power over animals, but that is fraught with responsibility as stewards of creatures that God takes very seriously. Some authors, prominent among them Robert Wennberg, go to lengths to find rights for animals in the Bible, particularly the right not to be eaten as human food. Ultimately, they struggle to find strong scriptural support, rely on extrabiblical sources, and don’t address in a practical way what “dominion” means .
I’ve become convinced that an effective view toward animal rights (one that really holds water) is based on a stewardship ethic that can only be found in Christian thought as put forth in Scripture. This will take some unpacking, and I will attempt to do that over a few blogs.