If animals are sentient, what then?

Have you ever been seduced by an argument? Watched it unfold before you, smoothly and softly, tugging you a little deeper with each sentence. For me, it was the gravity of ethicist Peter Singer’s proposition in Animal Liberation, written over 30 years ago, that drew me in: namely, that if animals are sentient beings just as we are, they probably want to avoid pain, just as we do.

It sounds simple, even obvious – and, on one level, it is. On another level, the complexities and subtleties are enough to occupy a lifetime of thought. It is a great paradox that part of what makes us human is the ability to disassociate our beliefs from our actions and our sense of self from the context that helped create us.

There is one thing I do know. It always begins with the same questifon. ‘Do animals suffer?’ The answer must be yes, so then comes the real question, namely can we then justify causing that pain?

The approach doesn’t lead to a conclusion but a string of questions, doubts and dilemmas.  It is easy to see how so many of us simply give up.

Nevertheless, the animal rights movement has been gaining momentum for at least the last three decades. Soon-to-be-enacted reforms to New Zealand law suggest that the shift in public sentiment strongly favours a formal recognition of animal sentience. NZ legislators have listened, providing a serious precedent for Australia to follow.

What is animal sentience? The proposed New Zealand law contains no definition. So, while it seems like a significant step forward, with far reaching implications on everything from factory farming to live export, it also lacks weight.

Peter Singer is clear that it is not necessarily enough to insert a legal clause without a defined meaning.

‘I think that judicial activism would be very slow,’ he says. ‘It is a tool for judges, but probably no more. In Germany and Austria there are laws prohibiting unnecessary killing. But of course the question you’re going to ask is what counts as “unnecessary” and the truth is that remains more or less unresolved.’

Without a definition of sentience, it is unlikely that the debate in New Zealand will even reach that point. Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere, who lectures about animals and the law at the University of Otago, thinks that the hollowness in the laws mean they could quickly lose any significance at all.

‘I am really hesitant because without a definition of what sentience really means, I am afraid this is just window dressing,’ he argues. ‘The idea of sentience here is not linked to those who care for animals or how people act towards animals.  I mean, to be perfectly honest, it is unclear how it has the power to change anything.’

The reading speech suggests that the amendment is a direct response to public sentiment. Many of the submissions called not just for a recognition of sentience, but the banning of factory farming and live exports, as well at outlawing hunting. But the reforms barely touch on these topics in practice.

‘You have really got to question whether or not the public sentiment has been registered by Parliament or whether it has just simply been outweighed by economic interests,’ Ferrere says.

This is the most significant roadblock faced by the animal rights movement. Economically, most Western societies are built on the use of animals.  Everything about the lives of many species of animals that no longer exist in the wild is dictated by commercial interest. Their very existence is predicated on the market demand for them. For this reason, assigning them rights, as we understand the concept, is counter-intuitive – if giving animals a right to move freely, breed freely and live with autonomy makes farming too expensive to be viable, it is conceivable that the species would no longer exist outside of zoos.

Instead, the law favours the idea of giving animals ‘freedoms’. In New Zealand, these freedoms are enshrined in legislation. But they are not widely enforced – the government outsources regulation to a not-for-profit organisation that is strained for staff.

‘We have very few inspectors actually categorising and cataloguing the breaches of the act, very few prosecutions. It’s deplorable, really, to encourage a poor attitude to animal welfare simply because there are no real consequences for not upholding it,’ says Ferrere.

Using animals while recognising them as sentient beings creates a difficult position to defend. But it is not an impossible view. Singer adds, if there is no real harm then there is no real problem.

‘You would have to show some actual harm to the animal, or I have a tough time finding it is truly exploitation,’ he says.

It all turns on definition, on drawing a line between exploitation and interaction, between using and abusing. Zoos, in particular, can fall on either side of that line. The central point is how humans view themselves in relation to animals.

Anthropologist and author of Only The Animals Ceridwen Dovey has long been interested in this use of animals.

‘I think sentience is a very important and very interesting turn,’ Dovey says. ‘When I was writing I was very aware that mine were very human animals. I think it was John Berger who said that “animals are the original metaphor”. They gave us the great gift of metaphor and over time we degraded them in language.’

Language, it can be argued, is one of the most important things separating ‘us’ from ‘them’.  Humans first draw a distinction between species, and then use it to justify appropriating them both physically and in metaphor.

‘I was very wary of putting words in animals’ mouths. The only thing animals have left to confront us with is their silence,’ Dovey says of writing Only The Animals.

While researching the ethical boundaries of what defines humans as a species threw up new perspective on animals, but not in a traditional way.

‘I haven’t become a vegetarian,’ Dovey says. ‘I think everyone is very confused.’

Lurking beneath the surface of recognising sentience is an element of wanting to take humans out of the natural world, wanting to remove a sense of violence that would ordinarily occur. According to Dovey, this is a view that the current animal moment in literature is still coming to terms with.

‘In a way it has retired to folklore,’ she says. ‘If you look at the old traditions of the folk tale there is a darkness, there is the idea of an intense gaze you would get back from a wild animal that you wouldn’t get from an animal in a zoo … You don’t want to idolise that too much because that violence in the wild reminds you that life is meaningless, and that our life ends with as little meaning of those species around us.’

Perhaps the driving force behind the recognition of sentience is the attempt to escape our own animal instincts. But, if we accept that animals feel, and then further accept that a distinction between their pain and ours is an arbitrary one, it seems our decision really comes down to whether we can justify treating species differently.

According to Ferrere, once you outline this approach many people alter their behavior as a result.

‘Public pressure is what has given rise to all of the changes so far,’ he says. ‘People find it very difficult to resist.’

Emily Meller

Emily Meller is a Sydney-based writer and law student. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Vertigo and The Full Bench Law Journal.

More by Emily Meller ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. This is an enlightening perspective on what is essentially a fraught issue. As a teacher of English, currently reading with my students the novel, ‘Into that Forest’, which grapples with such conundrums, I would love to use this as a resource to illuminate the issue of animal sentience. How would I go about quoting your article?

    1. You’re a teacher of English and you don’t know how to quote an article? Hello? So you ask the author for help? What kind of teacher are you? Do you get your students to do research? Then why don’t you do some yourself and go find out how to quote an article. Or just read the bloody thing again and choose from it what you think would be most effective in the classroom for your discussions and analyses. Or get your students to read it (the possibilities are several). My god. Such stupidity!

      The article, btw, is excellent. So thankyou to the author and Overland.

    2. Meller, Emily 2014, [in italics:] If animals are sentient, what then?, Overland, accessed [insert date],

      An example of how you might reference it. Or you can search ‘how to reference website/online articles’ to see alternative ways. All the best in teaching about this important issue.

  2. Good article- am pleased that Overland have published such a piece. However, for a politically and culturally progressive journal concerned with some of the most pertinent issues of our time, it would be awesome to see more stuff on the underlying processes of human exceptionalism, and the profound moral, social and environmental costs of the presumed belief that animals are here purely for the purpose of serving us in whichever way we envisage. If man is indeed the only species with the knowledge of its own inevitable death, or the capacity to realise that other beings suffer, and if we strive to be moral beings and attain compassion for those we cannot understand and do not have voices in the exact same way we do, yet willingly and knowingly inflict untold levels of suffering on innocent beings for profit, sport, fashion, leisure, taste….then we are kidding ourselves into not only a particularly fallacious way of seeing, but also occupying a thoroughly destructive presence on the planet. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way from the obscene ideas of philosophers like Descartes on these matters, but unfortunately we have not. Animals are clearly sentient. Your pet dog is clearly sentient.
    ‘You would have to show some actual harm to the animal, or I have a tough time finding it is truly exploitation,’ he says.
    Remarks like this, in a logical world, should be met with universal disgust and incredulity. A good starting point is Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals” and the documentary narrated by Joaquin Phoenix “Earthlings”

  3. Aboriginal culture, here and in the US and Canada, has always accepted that animals are sentient beings. Hence the almost sacred and ceremonial ritual around killing animals for food. A future argument will also include plants and vegetables as well. (Perhaps all matter.) The reality is this: we have to eat something. So to do it with mindfullness.

    1. HiYa Joe, love your comment. For me it is not ‘all men are equal’, it is not even ‘all humans are equal’, it is ‘all things are equal’. That’s my goal and I’m sticking with it. 🙂

  4. All animals feel what could be described as ‘pain’, and accordingly practice avoidance behaviour and strategies. Experience teaches them what to avoid, and what to seek out and welcome.

    However, to assert that all animals are equally sentient would be to walk into a psychological and philosophical minefield. The reality is that intelligence, and almost certainly sentience, increases as we rise up the phylogenetic tree. An earthworm will respond automatically to light and to touch, and maybe ‘feels’ these as ‘pain’. The light sensor at my front door responds also to light, and I am pretty sure that the electronic circuitry involved registers no ‘pain’ at all. But I cannot be certain on that point.

    Joe said above: “A future argument will also include plants and vegetables as well. (Perhaps all matter.) The reality is this: we have to eat something. So to do it with mindfullness.” [Whatever ‘mindfullness’ is, Joe, I will try to do it with.] This is a topic which has been discussed quite extensively in the past. But I think it overlooks what we might call microbial realities, and if the reader is a Buddhist, perhaps best to skip the next paragraph of this comment.

    Every mouthful of food we eat inevitably includes numerous live cells, by count mostly bacterial. Some foods (eg yoghurt) are particularly rich in these. They descend into the stomach, which is a bacterial hell. Most of them die in the hydrochloric acid bath, which is part of the reason that bath is there in the first place. But further down the gut, billions of bacterial cells live in symbiosis with each of us; for a while. But most of them die in the digestive process, and faeces (ie shit) largely consists of dead bacteria. But I have no moral qualms about that because it is both natural and unavoidable.

    Like all of us, I was born with the digestive system of an omnivore. I eat vegetables often, no worries. The animals lowest on the aforesaid tree I have no qualms about eating are oysters. Though I do not eat wormburgers or snails I have no objections to them in principle. I do eat prawns, which I consider to be roughly equivalent to marine insects, and likewise have no moral qualms about swatting flies, mosquitoes and moths. Climbing the tree further, I am happy to eat chicken, fish, sheep meat and beef, but not pork or bacon. I draw my line there.

    But wherever we draw it, it is going to be an arbitrary line, and whatever absolute standard we set up, we will likely violate sooner or later.

    All living wild organisms follow one imperative given by nature: reproduce as successfully as you can before you are eventually, and inevitably, eaten yourself. We humans to date appear to be the only (partial) exception. We have largely beaten predation, though not yet death; not that I think we ever will.

    1. There is no line. There are no exceptions. We humans are too busy eating our own and all allegedly below us on the great chain until there will be nothing left – look out insects – with food stocks sure to dwindle – you’re next in the fry pan, swat?

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