Monday, October 13, 2014

Sentience Is Not Enough

This article originally appeared in Dog News and is published here by permission of the author.

Sentience Is Not Enough

Carlotta Cooper

Animal rights activists have become fond of pointing out that dogs and other animals are “sentient beings,” as though this is a new discovery. In actuality, philosophers and scientists have been discussing the sentience of animals since at least the 18th century. Researchers today seem to amuse themselves by conducting experiments to prove that animals are sentient, but this is not news to most people, especially those of us who have dogs.

Representative Jim Moran (D-Virginia), long a thorn in the side when it comes to animal legislation because of his joined-at-the-hip status with HSUS, recently regaled readers of the political web site TheHill with his thoughts on animals as property and their status as sentient beings.

"I recoil at the mindset, still espoused by some in Congress, that animals are mere property rather than sentient beings. It is that perverse worldview that led to mass exterminations of whole species throughout history,” Moran wrote.

Fortunately Moran, who has received 100 percent ratings from HSUS and been named Humane Legislator of the Year by the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, is retiring from Congress. However, there are plenty of other members of Congress with this same mindset who shill for HSUS.

Apparently people don't understand what the word “sentient” means. Perhaps the confusion for animal rights people – and that would seem to include Rep. Moran – comes from their own philosophers. Sentience is simply being able to feel or sense; having consciousness. There are some who would argue that trees and plants have sentience. Afterall, there are studies that show plants respond better when you play music for them or talk to them. Vegans could be committing murder when they eat a plate of kale.

When it comes to animals, animal rights activists usually cite the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham as an early founder of animal rights thought. He put forward the idea that if you can feel, then you can suffer; and the ability to suffer conveys certain rights. Even to animals. In Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham wrote:

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Animal rights activists argue that sentient beings of all kinds can experience feelings of pleasure and pain. Most of us would probably agree with this belief but ARs take it farther and would give animals rights because they can feel.

In the 20th century animal rights philosophers have taken this concept even farther. They have rejected some human rights – among them property rights – in favor of animal rights, calling efforts to keep human rights more important than animal rights “speciesism.” Peter Singer, one of the modern founders of the animal rights movement, wrote the following in his book Animal Liberation:

Assume that, as sometimes happens, an infant has been born with massive and irreparable brain damage. The damage is so severe that the infant can never be any more than a "human vegetable," unable to talk, recognize people, act independently of others, or develop a sense of self-awareness. The parents of the infant, realizing that they cannot hope for any improvement in their child's condition and being in any case unwilling to spend, or ask the state to spend, the thousands of dollars that would be needed annually for proper care of the infant, ask the doctor to kill the infant painlessly.
Legally, the doctor should not [kill the infant], and in this respect the law reflects the sanctity of life view. Yet people who would say this about the infant do not object to the killing of nonhuman animals. How can they justify their different judgments? Adult chimpanzees, dogs, pigs, and members of many other species far surpass the brain-damaged infant in their ability to relate to others, act independently, be self-aware, and any other capacity that could reasonably be said to give value to life. The only thing that distinguishes the infant from the animal, in the eyes of those who claim it has a "right to life," is that it is, biologically, a member of the species Homo sapiens...But to use this difference as the basis for granting a right to life to the infant and not to the other animals is, of course, pure speciesism. It is exactly the kind of arbitrary difference that the most crude and overt kind of racist uses in attempting to justify racial discrimination.

Singer takes Bentham's argument farther. Is an infant's life, even one with brain damage, more important than the life of an animal? Is it discrimination to value the life of a human more than that of an animal? These are the arguments Singer raises, with the obvious belief that an animal life is just as important as a human life.

Gary Francione, another leading animal rights philosopher, has a somewhat different view than Singer. He is an abolitionist."All sentient beings, humans or nonhuman, have one right: the basic right not to be treated as the property of others." (From his blog.) For Francione and some other animal rights philosophers, groups such as HSUS are not appreciated because they work incrementally, through legislation, instead of calling for the out and out abolition of pets and animal agriculture. These groups are too slow for some AR philosophers who would like to see an end to animal “enslavement” right away.

There is no reason why sentient beings can't be property. We're talking about dogs, cats, horses, farm animals, and all of the other animals that populate our domesticated world. We're not discussing human beings as slaves, even though ARs like to use the terminology of slavery. Sentience – the ability to sense and feel – doesn't convey some quasi-mystical status that gives animals human rights. Sure they think and feel. I don't think many people are surprised by that news. But they can't be held morally responsible for their actions. They don't know right from wrong as humans do.

I think most of us who have animals support animal welfare rather than animal rights. This is the belief that we are responsible for taking good care of our animals and preventing them from experiencing any unnecessary pain or suffering. We are stewards of the animals in our care and it's up to us to look after each generation so we can pass it along to the people who follow us. That doesn't mean surrendering our human rights or our property rights. It doesn't mean giving animals rights either.

Besides, people don't have to own animals as property to exterminate whole species. Native Americans didn't own the horses that were in the Americas before the continent was colonized by Europeans but they hunted them to extinction. According to biological diversity experts, we are losing dozens of species (including amphibians, birds, fish, insects and other creatures) per day simply because of changes to the environment.

So, Rep. Moran's discussion of the sentience of animals seems a little behind the times. Of course animals are sentient. Of course they feel and sense things. That's not the point. Your dog still can't tell right from wrong beyond knowing he's not supposed to poop in the house – which you have taught him. Your dog doesn't have the moral sense required to make or obey laws in a human society. Your dog needs you to make these decisions for him and take care of him as a domesticated animal. That's why we don't need animal rights. That's why sentience is not enough.

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