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.