28 May 2021

Sentient Animals

Sentient Animals


Topic by Ignacio

Essay by Lawrence


This topic is an extension of our discussion: Should pets be treated as property?



In this essay I want to briefly explore three issues:

1)    Is a debate about sentient animals really a debate about speciesism?

2)    Is there a Turing test we can perform on animals to establish whether they are sentient.

3)    What is it like to be an animal?


But first to recap, there are many definitions of what we mean by sentient. Usually any definition would include: feelings, sensations, consciousness, self-awareness, sapience or wisdom. Today very few would deny that animals do not have these characteristics, the problem is that animal sentientism is not necessarily the same as other animal sentientism. And certainly animal sentientism is not necessarily human sentientism.  A sentient dog need not have the same sentientism of a cat. And even then, human sentientism does not mean that it is the gold standard of biological sentientism.


We can define speciesism in two ways: 1) Humans are the most important species and no matter how sentient other species are our moral superiority cannot be matched by other species. 2) No matter how sentient other species may be we are always more important than they are.


In a way, specialism is just a rational way of saying dominance over other species. Indeed, not only do humans dominate other animals, but we also dominate each other. There are many dictatorships on Earth today that treat fellow human being worse than animals in a zoo.


It may be argued that speciesism is nothing more than biological evolution and we happen to have won the natural selection process on land, whilst other animals have thrived in other environments, such as air or sea.


But this does not answer the moral question: we might have been the product of natural selection but we have also developed the concept of universalisable moral principles. Would not this imply that our morality should also extend to other species given that the race to dominate species was against other sentient species? In other words, we might be the dominant sentient species so by definition other species are also sentient. And by definition shouldn’t universal moral principles be extended to other species?


The Turing machine test is a mental method by Alan Turing to establish whether a computer can think like a human or not. Can a machine exhibit human like behaviour that it cannot be distinguished from a human being? The first problem we might encounter is to establish a test that mimics sentientism.  But of course, this sentientism must be compatible with the different sentientism of other species and breeds within species. For example some dogs are good at sniffing drugs after training, whilst others a good at being friendly. A Turing test must account for such differences; and there is no point asking human type moral questions. Even still, this does not mean that animals cannot be cunning or even act with malice; probably from perceived threat to life.


Some might argue that animals act from instinct, but so do human beings act from instinct: we run to catch a bus that’s at the bus stop; we hoard toilet paper during a pandemic etc. So instinct per se is not a disqualifier of sentientism. The question is still given that animals might be sentient in their own way, what are the implications to our natural selection dominance? And when answering the moral implications on whether animals are sentient we need to distinguish between “duty to care” and “duty not to cause harm.” I doubt whether human being pass with flying colours when distinguishing these two questions in the context of other human beings.


In the celebrated paper by Thomas Nagel, he asks the question "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (1974). The paper was written in the context of consciousness, but today many would accept that animals are conscious creatures, maybe not conscious like human beings, but still conscious. Indeed how can animals be conscious like human beings, when for example a dog knows that we are carrying some strange substance or worse we are suffering from a disease?


According to Nagel, there has to be something that it is to be that organism (Wikipedia: and many other publications of the paper). Unfortunately, only a bat “knows” what it is like to be a bat; and I, therefore, propose bats who know what it is like to be a bat (or any other creature) are also successful animals. Even more, a successful animal is not behaving as if he was a successful animal, but rather he or she is being successful as the animal it is.


In effect before we can establish whether animals are sentient we need to establish whether human beings are morally sentient in the first place.


Best Lawrence


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