Animal sentience and animal welfare

A postscript to yesterday’s post on animal sentience. Some readers took me to be proposing that we drop the concept of sentience and stop asking which animals are sentient and which aren’t. Since it’s generally agreed that sentient creatures have ethical claims on us that non-sentient ones don’t, such a policy might have worrying ethical implications.

That wasn’t my intention. I no more want to eliminate the notion of sentience than you, in my imagined conference scenario, would want to eliminate the notion of life. You would want the conference participants to revise their conception of life — to start thinking of it as a cluster of biological processes rather than as a hidden essence that is only contingently connected to those processes. Substituting ‘psychological’ for ‘biological’, that’s what I want to do with consciousness.

Revising our conceptions of life and sentience in these ways would not prevent us from continuing to ask about the distribution of those properties in the natural world, and it would, in fact, make the task much more tractable. Nor would it prevent us from continuing to regard life and sentience as ethically significant. (Indeed, the revised conceptions would provide a much better foundation for ethical concern than the old ones, which treated those features as mysterious essences, which might have no casual role in the physical world.)

This isn’t to say that the revisions would have no consequences. For one thing, they would change the way we frame questions about the distribution of life and sentience. Instead of asking ‘Is this creature alive/conscious?’, we would ask ‘Which aspects of the cluster of biological/psychological functions constitutive of life/consciousness does this creature possess, and to what degree?’.

Focusing on sentience, we would cease to think of consciousness as a binary feature and and cease to ask whether or not a creature possesses it tout court. Instead, we would think of sentience as a multi-dimensional space of possibilities, whose axes correspond to different psychological sensitivities and abilities, and ask whereabouts in this space a creature is located. In short, we would replace a neat but intractable metaphysical question with a messy but tractable empirical one.

We would also change how we approach the ethical issues. If sentience were binary, then our task would be to divide animals into the sentient sheep, who have an ethical claim on us, and the non-sentient goats, who don’t. But if it’s a multi-dimensionally graded feature, then we would need to adopt a much more nuanced approach. We would need to to determine where each creature was located in the region of sentience space and ask what kind of ethical claims creatures in that region have on us, given their characteristic sensitivities and abilities. Instead of asking, ‘Should we care about this creature?’ we would ask, ‘How should we care about this creature?’

I think that would be progress.

How I feel about work on animal sentience

Yesterday on Twitter Robert Long asked me how I, as an illusionist, feel about the recent surge in work on animal sentience, such as that being done under the umbrella of Jonathan Birch’s Foundations of Animal Sentience project.

The short answer is: enthusiastic and optimistic. It’s great to see this work. It should shake up our anthropocentric assumptions, both theoretical and ethical, and give us a much better understanding the diversity and complexity of the minds of the creatures with whom we share this planet. The bulk of the experimental work being done will be useful regardless of whether one takes a realist or illusionist view of the metaphysics of consciousness.

Having said that, I do often feel uneasy at the way the debate about animal sentience is framed. I’ll illustrate my unease with a little story.

Imagine you go to a conference on animal life. Everyone there is debating furiously about which animals are really alive. Most are convinced that mammals are alive, but there is deep disagreement about whether birds, reptiles, cephalopods, and insects are, and only a few brave souls are prepared to argue that flatworms are alive.

You are puzzled at first, but then you realize that what they mean by ‘life’ is different from what you mean. They do not think of life as a loosely defined cluster of biological functions, such as growth, perception, metabolism, and reproduction. They think of life as an extra feature — an essence or spirit — which can’t be defined in functional terms and can’t be directly detected.

Most of them agree that this feature is closely associated with the biological functions you think define life, and some even think it is identical with some cluster of them, but they they can’t decide which biological processes are the best indicators of its presence. They cite vast quantities of experimental work on life in animals, but it all concerns the presence of some biological function or other, and since there is no agreement about which function is the best indicator of life, none of it is decisive. What one theorist regards as definitive evidence of the presence of life another dismisses as a confounder.

You tentatively suggest that life is nothing more than a cluster of biological processes and that the extra feature the participants are looking for is illusory, but everyone stares at you with incomprehension. Some declare that that you’re a monster for denying that animals are alive.

Now you know how I feel about work on animal sentience.