Objection (3): Moral Irrelevance (Lack of Sentience)
“Animals are morally irrelevant (because they aren’t sentient). Therefore, we don’t need to worry about how we are to treat them.”
This position may be termed “extreme anthropocentrism” or “total dismissal” – with only humans in the moral arena and animals completely excluded from it. According to this view, animals don’t count morally in their own right. If they are to be considered at all, it is only in relation to human interests – so maybe because they belong to humans and harming them would violate the moral rights of their owners; or because abusing them might promote a general tendency towards cruelty in society, which would have unwelcome consequences for human beings.
Now, it is true that many people still seem to be acting on this premise. However, at least in enlightened, progressive societies, total ethical dismissal of animals is no longer propagated officially today; and only very few are prepared to defend it publicly. Instead, there appears to be a rather broad consensus that animals do count in their own right and thus deserve moral protection – irrespective of any reference to human beings and their interests. (The sole exception today probably being certain ethical theories such as contractarianism or Kantianism, both of which, in their standard forms, lack the conceptual repertoire to include animals in morality.)
Most of the reasons that may be invoked to support the moral irrelevance of animals can be – and in fact are more often – put forward to support a less extreme position, namely that animals are morally less significant than humans. Addressing those reasons will therefore be postponed to the discussion of the next objection (4), which deals with the argument of moral inequality. However, there is one contention that only makes sense in the context of total dismissal, so it deserves immediate attention: it is the claim that animals aren’t sentient – i.e. that they neither feel pleasure or pain, nor experience joy or sorrow. This claim has, rather infamously, been propounded by philosophers like Descartes and his disciple Malebranche. However, since it stands in stark contrast to common sense, everyday experience and the current state of scientific knowledge, this contention is highly controversial and crops up only rarely nowadays.
(3.1) Animals Are Sentient
There is ample evidence to support the claim that animals are sentient, i.e. that they are capable of feeling pleasure and pain as well as experiencing joy and sorrow:
(i) Animals display behaviours that are sufficiently similar to ours when they are faced with situations in which we would feel pain or experience suffering.
(ii) Animals’ brains and nervous systems are sufficiently similar to ours – especially those parts responsible for processing experiences such as pain and fear.
(iii) Sentience is evolutionary useful: pain and fear may keep you out of harm’s way while pleasure and joy may provide incentives for beneficial behaviours.
(iv) Painkillers and anxiolytic drugs are developed in animal experiments, with animals as models for human beings. If animals weren’t capable of experiencing pain and anxiety, all scientific research in this respect would have been fundamentally ill-premised all along.
(v) Animal welfare legislation is based on the very assumption that animals are sentient and vulnerable and thus deserve some form of protection in their own right. If animals weren’t sentient, there would be little point in passing any such legislation.
(3.2) Sentience is sufficient for moral consideration
Sentience is widely considered to be a sufficient criterion for moral consideration. And since animals are in fact sentient, they are entitled to – at least some form of – moral consideration. Therefore, total moral exclusion of animals would seem to be no option.