Sentience
 
 
 



Now, Iím sure that there are many sentient beings on this planet, although I do sometimes wonder about the human kind, particularly football supporters. Our beloved leaderís new wife, though, has decided that, as a matter of priority, in the middle of all the other problems we are trying to resolve, we should have an Act of Parliament which recognises that all vertebrates are sentient. The Animal Rights (Sentience) Bill when passed will do just that.

Sheís apparently not though concerned with invertebrates. Perhaps theyíre not cuddly enough. Neither octopuses nor lobsters would make good pets as far as Iím concerned, but then most people donít find rats or mice particularly attractive as companions either. So itís all a little bit odd as an approach to what I assume is an attempt to increase our concern for the welfare of other species. The background to it appears to be our old friend Brexit.

The Lisbon treaty says:
[All of] the Union's...policies Ö shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the EU countries relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.
When we left, that rather qualified recognition of the need to take sentience into account was also left behind Ė it was not included in any of the considerable quantity of post-Brexit replacement UK legislation. In fact though weíve had far-reaching animal welfare protection laws here for a very long time. The first Act was passed 200 years ago. So then, many concerned with animal welfare would say that the remaining countries of the EU need to make progress more than we do.

The new Act though would set up a committee to advise the government as to whether its policies were compatible with animal sentience. There is however, so far, no provision for the committee to have a budget and its members would be appointed by the government.  So it does look at the moment as though itís just an attempt to look more animal friendly without actually doing anything. But when we say that animals are sentient, what does that imply? The Countryside Alliance, whose members are farmers and owners of game-shooting estates say:
ď...the Countryside Alliance has always recognised the fact that animals are sentient beings and supports all genuine welfare measures. Those who have the task of husbanding animals and managing wildlife acknowledge and understand the fact that animals are sentient and the consequent need to avoid causing animals unnecessary suffering and of acting humanely in their dealings with animals. Of course, recognition of sentience and the welfare needs of animals is not the same as recognising that animals have rights, in the sense that human beings have rights...Ē
On the other hand, Ingrid E. Newkirk, the founder of the extremist animal rights organisation, PETA, says:
ďAnimal rights helps us to look past the arbitrary distinctions between different species, to rediscover our innate compassion and to respect all animals equally. "When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife."
So sentience seems to mean either the attribution of the equivalent of human rights to all animal life or that we just continue to have laws saying that we should not inflict unnecessary suffering.

The PETA position however fails to address, and instead sweeps aside, some fundamental questions.

Even if we accept that all other animals have sentience, which is necessarily a belief rather than a fact, is sentience the same for all animals? Chimpanzees are generally held to be the primates nearest to us in their capabilities and social lives. They show many of the emotions that we display, including grief, happiness, friendship, anger, curiosity and frustration. Do these same emotions exist to the same extent in mice? Although they benefit from having social interactions, no-one has ever shown that mice engage in a period of mourning for a cousin lost in a mouse trap.

But we have to go further into the detail in order to address those questions ignored by PETA. We know that reactions such as pain are there to tell us that we may be injured if we donít back off. Our entire system of senses and emotions is designed to enable us to survive. They provide us with feedback on our surroundings. But many of these basic attributes can in principle be duplicated in androids without the need to perceive them as sentient or give them android rights. They are just machines.

We would deny that we humans are reducible to that sort of description although, from the outside at least, it would be a little difficult to tell. We know from the inside view of ourselves, our self-consciousness, that we see and perceive things in ways which we would not attribute to machines designed simply to react to their environment in a purely utilitarian way, in a way intended simply to ensure their survival. Above all, we would say, our sentience includes being aware of ourselves, an attribute which may exist in other animals as well, but which I suspect would be to a lesser extent.

We also have a richer life than other animals, with art, music, poetry, darts, football and so on which do not have any immediate survival benefit, although they of course promote our social lives which gives us benefit in the longer term. They also, may I venture to say, stop us from being bored. Can you imagine having the life of a cow Ė eating grass, chewing the cud and belching methane? And not going mad with the boredom? And by the same token, we can reasonably infer that cows do not have the varied inner world which we possess and presumably therefore do not need it because their awareness of themselves and their futures is far less acute than ours.

And then there is the question of intelligence. The level of intellect of a mouse is clearly a lot less than that of a chimp and that of a chimp is a lot lower than ours. They are therefore unable to solve problems of any complexity and so will necessarily understand the world (and react to it) in an entirely different way. So then, can we really say that the sentience of PETAís rat, pig or dog is the same as that of a boy? I think that would need more than just an assertion from them. I also think that it would be very strange for an animal, with no apparent concept of the future or of their own limited lifespan, to have any of the angst which we as human beings obviously do have and which is part of our awareness of ourselves and of our impermanence.

Clearly, we have to recognise that animals have emotions. They are an integral part of how we avoid danger, find food and find mates. It does not mean, however, that emotions are felt in the same way by all animals or with the same intensity. Our emotions as humans are not just a reaction to what has already happened to us, but are also responses to our knowledge of what may happen in our future. Lower order animals, having no real ability to work out what the future holds, at least beyond the next second or two, would not have that additional element to their emotions. And so their sentience, their view of their lives would inevitably be different to ours.

For all these reasons, I find the PETA position really rather silly, and will continue to do so until the lion really does lie down with the lamb. After all, if the lion claims animal rights then that must be accompanied by its recognition of those rights for other animals. Which all means that our treatment of other animals should be informed by the emotional reactions we can assume they have in order to survive, but not by some Disneyesque view of animals as cute furry humans.

A rat is not a pig, which is not a dog, which is not a boy.

Paul Buckingham

15 August 2021




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