Where we draw the line: The issue of sentience

free-wallpaper-19Note: We are all animals. In this blog, when I use either “other animals” or “our fellow animals” I mean “non-human animals”. I don’t use the latter term here because it creates a conceptual divide between human and non-human, one that as an abolitionist, I’m trying to collapse. I don’t only mean “wild” mammals. I mean all animals, including domestic animals, but also including non-mammalian species, arthropods, and invertebrates.

The following is my own personal view on the issue of who is “morally considered” in terms of rights, and who is not. I don’t have any credentials, nor have I written peer-reviewed papers, so this is definitely a lay-person’s approach. I examine the issue of using sentience as the criteria for consideration, and the problems that arise. I hope people find this review useful or at least thought provoking. If I’ve misrepresented the position of any theorist I reference, I apologise. It was not  my intention, and may be due to my lack of understanding. I am open to discussion and clarification.

In my “Why Vegan?” post, I intentionally did not use “sentience” as the reason to be vegan. It may have been implied, but I did not want to rely on that, or use it thoughtlessly, and instead tried to put the reasons for becoming vegan in a more basic, less defined framework of seeing the moral personhood in fellow animals. In part, this is because I wanted to avoid the very intellectual debate about the nature of sentience. While I find some academic debates on the nature of truth, of perception, of sentience, or of the basis of morality are interesting and worthwhile, I view the understanding of veganism as much more of a gut understanding, as an instinctive and emotional response.

It’s like feminism. I like Judith Butler, a feminist writer who looks deeply into the social construction of “self” and our development of gender. She has a lot to say, but her writing is not “easy”. And it is completely unnecessary to everyday feminism, when we look at everyday feminism as the struggle to dismantle the systemic discrimination against women. Understanding the construction of gender is important, but not needed when you’re fighting violence against women.

G4SH4142-cow-calfLikewise with veganism: Philosophical debates can get very abstruse, and lose people. It is very intellectual, debating what sort of ethical system is best: moral absolutism, moral relativity, moral realism, and so on; looking at rights-based vs utilitarian approaches. These issues interest philosophers, and help frame our deeper understanding of veganism, but really make little difference to the grass-roots understanding that using our fellow animals is wrong. I tried to reflect that in my explanation of why people might be vegan.

Before I commence, I’d like to say that there are reasons to distrust sentience as a criteria. As humans, we cannot ever truly fully know and understand the internal world of any animal or living being, because they are of different species. Any conjecture about that inner world is seen through the anthropomorphic lens of our own understanding of the world, so our conjectures about their sentience or experience can only be speciesist. We interpret response through our own experience, but that is not necessarily an accurate measure of what they experience. We create the requirements for inclusion as sentient, and then attribute these requirements, or not, to other animals. The process is, to a large degree, arbitrary and a result of human interpretation.

“Scientifically”, studies of pain or “sentience” are generally the result of animal torture. Measurements may be objective, but interpretations and choice of what to measure are subjective. The conclusions are often suspect, and completely subjective, often simple intellectual constructs not based on any evidence. An example is the conclusion that sessile beings would not evolve the ability to feel pain because they couldn’t escape from danger, which is pure conjecture. It is used to dismiss sentience in species like bivalves, even though it is clear that bivalves react to intrusion, some (clams and scallops) will bury themselves under sand when threatened, and in the motile juvenile states they clearly respond to other organisms, and to threats.

Sentience is therefore a questionable basis for granting moral personhood. Yet it has been used from Bentham onward, as the reason to examine our treatment of animals. In this blog post I will now look at the use of sentience, and try to consider what it may mean for abolitionist vegans.

Sentience: Drawing the Line

Most academic writers use “sentience” as the reason for treating our fellow animals with “respect” (which they frequently define differently), and to ethically justify not applying the same principle to other living beings (like plants). I’ve specifically avoided that, because there then follow debates about how we measure sentience: who is sentient, and who falls short, or who is sentient, but less self-aware than someone else and whether that ethically matters. It’s easy to start to create hierarchies of rights, of consideration. Most concerning is when we humans start to define consciousness or cognitive development in terms of human-like cognitive processes, and then judge other animals on whether they “measure up”. This sometimes gets even more vexed, where we take aspects of our peculiar kinds of cognition, like logic or speech, as a measure.

Briefly, just to make my own position clear, as a biologist, I was taught that there are essentially two realms, the bacteria (Prokaryotes), and lifeforms with a nucleus (Eukaryotes), which includes four kingdoms, the Protista (microscopic lifeforms), Fungi (mushrooms, yeasts, and molds), Plants, and Animals. Animals include invertebrates, insects, and all sorts of little beings. So as a biologist, when I say “animals”, I automatically include snails, spiders, worms, jellyfish. I include mussels, sea-pens, sponges and Krill. This definition excludes plants, fungi, protista, and bacteria. But it include a lot of very small beings, and a lot of forms of life outside the mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. I’d also like to make clear that, due to our limited perceptions, while  it is not possible to absolutely eliminate all questions of plant sentience, I personally don’t consider plants, fungi, protists, or bacteria sentient. If the issue of plants is raised here, it is because this issue is raised by writers like Colb and others, mainly to create definitions of sentience that include animals while excluding plants.

sea pen

Sea pen, a sessile aquatic animal

The biologist’s definition is not the one commonly held by “animal ethics” philosophers. Most want hard ethical principles, where they can say, “This is the line, and this is where, and why, we draw the line.” To be blunt, to a degree, I think their considerations are self-serving. I think that constructing definitions of sentience that allow people to draw lines which allow them to stay on the “ethical” side by declaring some animals sentient and some as questionable, is convenient. If we define insects and invertebrates as moral persons, it is distressing to think that insects are sentient, knowing you will get in a car and kill at least dozens of them. It is distressing to think that when you garden, you kill sentient insects and invertebrates. It is distressing to think that when you wash a widow, or a counter, with soapy water, that water will kill any sentient insect it encounters during use or disposal. It’s distressing to think that the food you get in a supermarket involves hundreds of deaths. And it doesn’t matter that we know that as vegans, we prevent the death of millions of insect and invertebrate lives through not using animal products. It is still terrible. It is more convenient for us to say we are ambivalent about insect and invertebrate sentience. We feel less like hypocrites.

Sherry F. Colb, vegan advocate and Professor of Law at Cornell, in her book Mind if I order the Cheeseburger, (2013, Lantern Books) takes up the issue of drawing the line in her first chapter “What about Plants?” She draws her line at sentience, and then defines sentience as perception. I feel there is a problem with saying this and then limiting our consideration to animals. We know plants at least perceive light, and many plants respond to it. Let’s look at how Colb reasons:

Pharaoh_cuttlefish“What then distinguishes plants from animals? One important answer is sentience, the capacity of an organism to experience the world around her. If an animal has perceptions and experiences, then that animal is sentient.

To be sentient generally means that a living creature is able to experience pain and pleasure. We do not need much scientific study, for example, to know that under this definition, a dog is sentient. Anyone who has had the occasion to live with a dog (with the rather notorious exception of Rene Descartes) can attest to the fact that a dog can feel pain, fear, affection, anger, and other states that reflect the ability to perceive and experience the world. Those who study animal behaviour more broadly find overwhelming evidence that not only dogs, but all vertebrates – including mammals, birds, reptiles and fish – and many invertebrates as well – including octopi and squid – have the capacity to suffer.”
Mind if I order the Cheeseburger, (2013, Lantern Books) (p 3)


Sentience as Suffering

Although Colb begins with perception and experience, by the next paragraph she has included further requirements to insist sentience must be a perception of pain and the capacity to suffer. Ultimately, nearly all animal ethicists come down to a definition of sentience as the ability to suffer, to feel pain. As Colb does here, they may mention other qualities, but it is pain, suffering, that they generally rest on, as the easiest to find evidence which will be accepted, the issue they focus on, far more so than emotions such as affection, anger, or even fear. But as this report shows, even pain is hard to ascertain.  Using pain and suffering as a definition also allows them to disregard living beings that arguably do not feel pain (plants, maybe jellyfish, though jellies have more happening than is obvious), or beyond that, to disregard those who may have a reflexive response to pain, but are deemed not “suffer” from it (clams and mussels).

Colb mentions the disputes around consciousness, and the fact that most who do dispute the sentience of other animals do so by defining sentience in terms of the qualities human philosophers see in themselves. And of course Descartes had the unique qualification for sentience that one must have a “soul”, and baldly stated that animals don’t.

But Descartes had a more lasting impact on our assessment of other animals, stating that they were effectively machines, acting on biological programming, with no consciousness at all. Some form of this idea is still used by many of those who seek to deny consciousness in non-human animals. The claim that “instinct” is not “consciousness” has allowed some people to deny awareness of even some of the mammalian group, certainly birds and fish.

category-reptiles-lizard-reptile-picture_218069The recourse to the capacity to feel pain, to suffer, as a proof of sentience is also not new. Colb, like many theorists, cites Jeremy Bentham, often seen as the father of welfarism, and “humane use”.

“The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. 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 they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

Puffer_Fish_DSC01257As an aside, one outcome of the use of “suffering” as the gauge of sentience, is that focusing on suffering lends itself to “humane treatment”, the reduction of suffering, as a response, and a definition of ethical treatment in relation to our fellow animals. This is used instead of looking at our interference with their autonomy, as beings that have lives that belong to them and that they experience living, with their own preferences, and their own purposes. Considering their autonomy and desires should lead to the conclusion that our use of them violates this, and the ethical response would logically be not to use them. But with the exception of the abolitionist vegan movement, the central focus of the “animal movement” is “humane treatment” and reducing suffering. This is why those who focus on “humane treatment” are described as “New Welfarists”.

In a recent, particularly cynical attempt to address reduction of suffering, it was suggested that animals be bred without the capacity to feel pain, as a way to “eliminate suffering”. Experiments involving complete pain suppression have already been performed. This sort of distortion and modification of animals to suit us is wrong, and shows the problems of using “suffering” as a criterion. It is even worse when we do so to assuage our consciences about using them in the first place.

Though the capacity to suffer is broadly accepted as a measure of sentience, suffering is used two ways, and addressed in two ways.

  • Regan, Singer, and the major animal charities see suffering as arising purely physically, and adopt the “reduction of suffering” through “humane treatment” model of New Welfarism.
  • Colb, Francione and other abolitionist vegans, see suffering as arising through use, and say that suffering will not end until animal use ends.

Sentience may be considered basic to recognition of other animals as moral persons, but sentience is not always deemed enough by many new welfarists.

New Welfarists

Looking at the new welfarists first, Tom Regan, Professor of Philosophy from North Carolina University, in his The Case for Animal Rights, develops a basis for moral personhood that goes beyond sentience to grant “intrinsic rights” only to those who are “subjects of a life”.

To be the subject of a life… involves more than merely being alive and more than merely being conscious… [I]ndividuals are subjects of a life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference and welfare interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them.
The Case for Animal Rights (p 243) (emphasis added)

jellyfishBy introducing these other issues, Regan draws the line for granting of rights considerably more tightly, eliminating inclusion of a range of  sentient animals from being “subject of a life”, and in the process, also eliminating human foetuses and those in a coma, or the severely disabled, who also may be sentient, but not “subject of a life”. He patches over the human cases with calls to grant humans rights through various mechanisms. He also attempts to patch over some of the exclusion of animals, while denying them “intrinsic rights” in the following way.

Even assuming birds and fish are not subjects of a life, to allow their recreational or economic exploitation is to encourage the formation of habits and practices that lead to the violation of the rights of animals who are subjects of a life.
Ibid (p. 417)

If, according to Regan, some animals are without “intrinsic (inherent) rights”, animals become divided between:

  • those deemed to be “subject of  a life”, who have intrinsic rights;
  • those deemed to be sentient but without rights, the killing of whom may create “bad habits”;
  • those deemed sentient, and without rights, the killing of whom may not create “bad habits; and
  • those deemed not sentient.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, largely accepts this model, privileging “subjects of life” without granting intrinsic rights (he’s a utilitarian, and doesn’t follow a “rights” model) .

He also doesn’t include killing of “sentient creatures” as creation of suffering. Singer said, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times on 12, March, 2000:

I don’t think, that ”every sentient creature deserves equal consideration for the opportunity to continue living without suffering.” It would be more accurate to say that I think that every sentient being deserves to have its interests given equal consideration. The difference is significant, because I don’t think that sentient creatures have a personal interest in continuing to live, unless they are also self-aware beings.
(emphasis added)

As well as the distinction between animals with “subject of a life”, and those with “mere sentience”, Singer makes clear statements that humans deserve special consideration, beyond that of “subjects of life”.

You could say it’s wrong to kill a being, whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed. What is different about humans? Humans are forward looking beings and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.
Indystar.com interview with Peter Singer on his book The Life You Can Save.
8 Mar, 2009.

Although Tom Regan and Peter Singer create hierarchies of sentience, and both Regan and Singer promote “humane use” of animals and are therefore “new welfarists”, all the animal ethicists I know of, new welfarists or abolitionist vegans, tend to depend on sentience, and to ultimately define sentience in terms of ability to suffer. I don’t say they define sentience only in terms of suffering, they do not, but nearly everyone who talks about sentience, talks about suffering.

Abolitionist Vegans

Turning back to abolitionist vegans, in her book, Colb moves from a definition of sentience in terms of suffering to investigate some of the limits of using suffering as tool for determining if behaviour is ethical. She looks at issues like whether death without suffering would be a problem. She further teases it out, looking at claims that though in death there is no suffering for a being that is killed, the suffering is to others for the loss of a child/parent/herdmate. Then Colb looks at the situation where a friendless, isolated being is killed painlessly in their sleep.

Ultimately she rejects the rationalisations, and states:

indexThough it is difficult to explain precisely what harm we do when we kill him, given that he is no longer around to experience the harm, [and no-one else knows or cares] most of us strongly and intuitively believe that we should not kill people. And what makes us believe we should not do so – the fact that people have lives that belong to them and that they experience living – is not unique to humans. Nonhuman animals live and experience their lives too, and when we kill them for our purposes, we steal something precious from them, something that we have no right to take. We instinctively understand that the right not to be tortured goes hand in hand with the right not to be murdered….

Here it is interesting that, pursuing the issue of pain and suffering, I feel Colb paints herself into a corner with the person whose death won’t “harm” anyone. She comes to the limit of using suffering as a criteria, and abandons it, turning to the “strong intuitive belief that [killing is wrong because] people have lives that belong to them, and that they experience living” This is a definition of sentience that is far more effective in terms of moving beyond simple physical harm, and into the realm of the harm any use creates. As an abolitionist, it would seem a better basis than the focus on pain and suffering. It is interesting then that once this intuitive understanding that life itself, and an animal’s autonomy, is precious has been used to get out of the trap of relying on pain and suffering, Colb’s focus returns to the issue of the right not to be killed or tortured.

insect47Gary L. Francione, abolitionist vegan and Professor of Law at Rutgers, is another who makes sentience his criterion for consideration. In his article,  Sentience, he, like Colb, defines sentience in terms other than pain and suffering:

A sentient being is a being who is subjectively aware; a being who has interests; that is, a being who prefers, desires, or wants. Those interests do not have to be anything like human interests. If a being has some kind of mind that can experience frustration or satisfaction of whatever interests that being has, then the being is sentient.

This is a definition, one that may be contentious in terms of who is deemed to have “preferences” or “desires”. But Francione makes efforts to extend his definition beyond the comparisons to human cognition. However, without trying to be reductionist, he seems to ultimately come back to the ability to suffer and feel pain as evidence of sentience, and a primary indicator of preference and desire. In Introduction to Animal Rights, while critiquing Regan’s notion of “subjects of a life” as the criterion for consideration as “protected animals”, Francione devolved back to suffering.

First, I see no reason to restrict the class of protected animals to those Regan describes as ‘subjects of a life.’ Some animals and some humans may lack “the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals” and they may have a most elementary “sense of the future” or “psychophysical identity over time”, but if they are sentient, they nevertheless have an interest in not suffering or experiencing pain, and therefore can be said to posses an “experiential life [that] fares well or ill for them, logically independently from their utility for others and logically independently from their being the object of anyone else’s interests.'”
Introduction to Animal Rights, (2000, Temple University Press, pxxxiii)

(emphasis added)

Here he makes an interest in avoidance of suffering evidence of sentience. If an animal does not want to be hurt, he deems that as evidence that she suffers, and wishes the pain and suffering to stop, and that the interest in ending the suffering is evidence of an “experiential life”. He defines sentience as the basic criterion for moral personhood.

Francione is clever in avoiding the need to describe a detailed system of sentience, and a detailed way to designate who is sentient and who is not. He takes for granted that most would agree the animals commonly used by humans; mammals, fish and birds; are sentient, and therefore not to be used. Francione, in Introduction to Animal Rights, remains ambiguous about the issue of species who seem “marginally sentient”, saying:

“Not all animals may be sentient, and it may be difficult to draw the line separating those who are capable of consciously experiencing pain and suffering and those who are not. There is, however, no doubt that most of the animals we exploit are sentient.”

Where there is less general consensus for bees, clams, silkworms, he states that we cannot be certain, and so we should treat them as sentient. In this way, he basically creates a moral argument for ending the use of all animals, including the use of bees for honey of pollination and silkworms for silk.

His pragmatism extends to the two principles he puts forward, principles he believes have broad social agreement. He says it in a number of places, this is from Eat Like You Care.

  1. …[T]hat we have a moral obligation not to impose unnecessary suffering on animals. (p.10)
  2. …[T]hat although animals matter morally, humans matter more. (p11)

This may seem anthropocentric, but Francione makes clear that human priority over animals applies only in cases of conflict or emergency . He is also clear that in our duty to avoid causing the unnecessary suffering of non-human animals,  “suffering” more or less includes both loss of life and loss of freedom, and any human use of other animals for food, clothing, entertainment or other purposes is “unnecessary”. This effectively means that from his principles he can argue all use of animals is unethical. He is also explicit in stating that if animals are property, they effectively lose any rights, and are treated as things. Therefore, according to Francione, being considered property is a fundamental form and cause of suffering. Abolishing the property paradigm becomes fundamental to ending animal suffering.

In general, nearly all animal activists accept mammals, birds, and reptiles as capable of suffering, and therefore see them as sentient. Fish are generally, but not always, included. Beyond that, it gets fuzzy. Francione considers all these animals obviously sentient, while displaying ambivalence about insects, clams, and other invertebrates. In my earlier quote from Colb, she clearly included at least some invertebrates (lobsters are widely regarded as sentient), and explicitly included cephalopods like octopi and squid. She doesn’t mention insects or arthropods, bivalves, or anchored animals like sponges, sea pens, and so on.

38540dc95815a807ebdc4dfcf293e0ddIf I remember, Singer explicitly drew the line at animals like bivalves (clams, mussels, scallops, etc). This is probably the reason questions of their sentience comes up. Francione expresses uncertainty about these, and indeed about insects as a whole. However, while expressing uncertainty, he does recommend treating them as if they are sentient. This leaves the issue of the large number of animals that humans generally do not use; although we regularly use some insects, worms, snails, sponges and jellyfish, there are many in those classes we don’t use, and several classes that we don’t use at all. Their claim to moral personhood, like their sentience, is left up in the air.

Sparassidae_Palystes_castaneus_mature_female_9923sAs to insects, arthropods, and invertebrates, I take the perspective that it is important to make an effort not to harm them, but that some unintentional harm is inevitable, especially with very small beings. I won’t deny their sentience. Recent research has shown that cockroaches act democratically. I won’t deny the status of insects and arthropods as fellow animals, just because classifying them as “not sentient” would make killing them more technically ethical. My ethics say that they are fellow beings, and it is important to consider them, and do my best not to harm them. Intentionally killing them is wrong, and that includes killing them through ignoring them and not paying attention.

Acknowledging the harm I unintentionally do is a motivating force to try and remember them, and watch that I don’t harm them. It is important to become more aware of what harm I do, and to minimise it through awareness. Ethically, it becomes a matter of intention and effort. If I make efforts not to harm, that is really all I can do, and all I can hold myself responsible for.  And only I know if I am honestly making efforts, or simply deciding it is not important enough to care.



Are Plants Sentient?

Colb goes straight from the discussion of sentience of animals to the question of whether plants are sentient, and advances some rationalisations about why plants should not be included (arguments that actions that optimise survival are not evidence of a desire to survive, not evidence of emotion, and that evolutionary adaptations may be more or less mechanical). “Only a being which has subjective experiences like pain and pleasure can want something.” This seems to parallel arguments against sentience in many animals.

But Colb is willing to work past this, and moves her argument on to the situation where we assume plants are, in some way, sentient. Her argument then is that in this case, it is, for humans, an issue of survival. We do not need to harm or use animals. Our survival does depend on our use of plants. Ethically, if they are sentient, our option is to minimise the harm we cause. And we can do that by adopting a plant-based diet, because animal agribusiness uses far more plants than are used directly by humans, and more than humans would use if they sourced all their food from plants. To see some more on this.

tamarind-tree-with-seedFrancione, in Eat Like You Care (2013, Exempla Press) simply dismisses the idea of plant sentience as silly, (p. 86) though he also takes the opportunity to point out that animal industries consume far more plants than growing crops for direct human consumption. In my opinion the argument he then offers (below) is poorly considered.

Will a plant turn toward the sun? Sure. Will a plant turn toward the sun even if by turning in that direction the plant will be mowed down? Sure. Will any animal behave in this way? No.”
Eat Like You Care (2013, Exempla Press) p. 87

This example may not be well considered, and relies on notions of plants as machine-like, or “instinctive”. It also relies on requiring higher orders of prediction for sentience, and an ability to understand human technology.

  • Firstly, in most situations, a plant turning to the sun will not result in its being mowed down. If a mower comes, and the plant is high enough, it will be mowed regardless of the way it faces. Some plants can turn, but they can’t duck.
  • Secondly, a wallaby, an animal almost everyone would deem sentient, may jump off the road when our car slows down and honks. Sometimes, more often than makes any sense, they jump straight back in front of our car as we start moving. In the case of those I encounter, we’re careful and we’re fortunate that we haven’t ever hit one. But I understand why, sadly, there are so many dead wallabies on the road.
  • Thirdly, humans act all the time in ways that are not good for their survival. In particular, people seem to engage in actions for short-term apparent benefit that will certainly hurt them in the medium term, if not far sooner. If humans pursue short-term interests at the cost of longer term interest, sometimes at the cost of survival, how can we claim that this, in plants, demonstrates that they have no sentience?

flowerThis is not to say plants are sentient. But clearly, Francione’s dismissive example seems to be a poor argument to show that they conclusively are not.

In any case, my own take on the “sentience” issue is that making sentience the grounds for moral consideration opens up to debate questions of what sentience is, and whether our fellow animals have it. I personally think that it is enough that we do not need to kill or use other animals, and therefore, regardless of whether they meet our definition of sentience, there is no excuse to do so, since in using them we certainly take their lives and violate their beings. This includes all sorts of animals, including the animals we normally use as “resources”, and those we don’t. I believe that simply because there is no need to kill them, that is enough reason not to do so. We can easily meet all our nutritional and other needs from non-animal sources. The idea of killing them just because I choose to is abhorrent. And since there is no need, every death becomes “because I choose to” (“because they taste good” is a form or “because I choose to”). My choice to indulge in unnecessary use (any use) is effectively the only reason I would have to kill or cause them suffering. Again, all use is unnecessary.

As to plants, although I don’t class them as sentient, I really will not classify them as “living things that can be morally disregarded”. My usual response where people say “what about plants” is to ask what they do to consider plants. Colb is generous on this issue, seeing it as a legitimate question, instead of simply as trolling. She sees it as a question as to where a vegan draws the line in considering living beings. (Ibid, p.2) I generally explain that I don’t think anyone is seriously concerned with plants unless they have already addressed their behaviour in relation to animals, since stopping our exploitation of animals is relatively easy, and stopping our exploitation of plants is not.

I’ve rarely heard vegans raise ethical concerns about using plants. Vegans may care, but most believe we must use plants, for food, for clothing, and for other purposes. The only ones I know who are advocating restricting use of plants are some fruitarians (many fruitarians are doing it purely for dietary reasons, and not all of whom are vegan).


Do we need “sentience” to decide not to harm?

worm1In any case, I don’t believe we need “sentience” to justify treating our fellow animals with respect. We do not need to use other animals, and the evidence is clear that we can easily live a good healthy life without using or killing animals. That’s enough reason not to do them violence. We need to eat, and so we eat plants (and fungi). Why the different treatment? Simply because we are animals, like other animals, and they are closer to us than plants. That may sound arbitrary and  speciesist, and it is, but it actually is no more arbitrary than humans creating divisions based on our human definitions of “sentience”, especially when we fetishise certain species like primates, dolphins, and others none of which are generally used as food.

ficus-obliquaIn respect of plants, I really have no idea if they are in any sense sentient, but since they are alive, there is no good reason to abuse our use of them, to use them thoughtlessly. I’ve seen orchards levelled for housing tracts, because it’s more convenient for the tractors than leaving at least one tree in each yard. Wanton destruction, and the mindset that goes with it, is problematic.

We should endeavour to use only what we need, and to investigate alternatives, but it is unlikely we will ever be free of the need for using plants, (humour alert) unless we develop a Star Trek “replicator”. I also feel there is some difference between killing a long-lived plant lifeform such as a tree, which may naturally live for several generations of humans, and killing or using a plant lifeform that naturally dies within a year. It seems less of a violation of them, closer to the natural state. Of course, that’s speciesist too. We plant some plants and pull out others we call “weeds”. Despite my serious doubts about plants being sentient, I do feel we need to consider plants, and not simply think of them as “things”.

Level 5 Vegan

Humour: From “The Simpsons”.

We all face difficulties living ethically. As I said in relation to insects, we can control the harm we do intentionally, but can’t ever eliminate unintentional harm. I, like all of us, can only do what I can do. I don’t grow all my own food, I buy plant-based food from a supermarket, and I know that farmers kill insects, and even mammals, and that agriculture alienates land and reduces habitat. I can’t change that, except by trying to grow what food I can without pesticides. And here, I’ll mention “veganic gardening”, which from what I understand uses insect predators as “biological control agents” to reduce some “pests”. This  use of animals is also speciesist. But it’s difficult to grow food when insects and other invertebrates want to eat it too. Like most people, I don’t have a big enough garden to feed myself. In any case, most people live in urban areas. I mostly can’t afford organic food, even if it is available, and “organic” still leaves room for non-chemical means of killing. I recognise we humans impose a cost on all other living beings, animal and others, simply by living in our global capitalist consumer culture. There’s not a lot I can do about that, but it’s a good argument to limit human reproduction. That is one of my causes. Short of living in a cave and eating nettles, we all are complicit in the harm human activity does. And if even ten percent of us tried living in a cave, that would also have a major impact. I know just driving kills numerous insects, and that disturbs me,  but my alternative is to isolate myself. Anyone who suggests riding a bike… I live rurally in Australia, and town is a long way away.

antLikewise, there are issues of survival and health. A plant-based diet is healthy, and I may be able to:

  • prevent mosquitoes by using flyscreen, or coating my skin with citronella; and
  • relocate mosquitoes if they come into the house.

This does not cover issues like having Ascarid worms or other parasites, attacks by rabid animals, and so on. In this situation, I, like Francione, put my interest in survival and maintaining basic health above that of others. I wish it was not so, and try to prevent problems I can foresee, but I do value my own life.


In conclusion, sentience has generally been the criteria animal ethics theorists use for deciding which living beings “count” and which do not. While I don’t say people should not look to sentience, I hope I’ve pointed out that it results in issues of inclusion and and exclusion, even among animals. The worst part of that is where people argue who is sentient in order to keep exploiting some animals. I don’t see that reliance on sentience is necessary. I realise it sounds simplistic, but in my opinion, the fact that other animals are our fellow animals, and we do not need to use them for any purpose, is enough reason not to do so. If you like using sentience as a basis for your vegan education, fine. But be aware of the limitations, and please, there is no reason for us to use, or intentionally harm, any animal, ever.

Primates in Peril 2012 2



4 thoughts on “Where we draw the line: The issue of sentience

  1. I always find it interesting how the seemingly demure question about the empirical presence of something – sentience – becomes so deeply muddled up in highly charged normative debates of human-nonhuman political relations. Makes me wonder: Is this due to the nature of the object of study or are humans just incapable of taking a step back from their own interests & their implications in these relations?

    With your devaluation of sentience as condition sine qua non of consideration, I don’t think I can follow. Doesn’t the very notion of harming someone implicate that the harm is experienced? Unless maybe you’d like to take a teleological position of accounting for harm (i.e. something like for all X there is a function and X is harmed, iff its functioning is compromized), which would appear to be quite incompatible with any individualist moral frameworks like rights.

    Subsequently I also don’t see how any obligations of care can follow for nonsentient, live beings; maybe you can elaborate there?! All the political problems one might see in their (ab)use are, in my view, quite meaningless unless one postulates their sentience. What does it even mean to harm, to dominate or exploit some entity that by assumption has no own experience of these things? At best one can read this as a figurative speach like when I say that I dominate calculus, I exploit my knowledge of the tax system or tat I might have harmed Mozart’s heritage, when I sing his arias. All of these things might make sense, but only because we are quite clear not to take them to literally.

    As of the point where people use the sentience-criterion to keep using some animals: As far as I’m concerned that would only be problematic, if they were wrong in their analysis. And in this case there would only appear to be a problem with them not thinking well enough about the case at hand, or with them not erring on the side of caution where it would be adequate due to limited info – It doesn’t seem to be a problem with the normative analysis that maintains sentience as a criterion of consideration for care.

    I leave you with my favourite argument against plant sentience (which I believe is important to make; The strategy of the “even if plants suffer we minimize suffering as vegans” is problematic, because I think it makes it very difficult to maintain a rights based approach to veganism. When it is practically impossible to, at least in theory, respect all basic rights, it is very difficult not to retreat to a position where it’s all only about reducing suffering):

    Sentience, as I understand it, requires one to produce some kind of representation of the world against which new stimuli are evaluated (this evaluation would be, what we call experience). Thus, for such a representation to be produced, one would certainly need a large enough amount of info to confluate at some point; Doesn’t have to be a central nervous system necessarily but some kind of centralized structure. There’s no evidence of any such structure in plants (as well as in many animals; You mentioned sponges for example).

    • Tom,

      I understand it is difficult to walk away from sentience as a basis for rights. As I tried to explain in my blog, the whole issue of sentience is effectively mediated by human definitions of sentience, and human interests in defining sentience. As you say “Is [the dispute around sentience] due to the nature of the object of study or are humans just incapable of taking a step back from their own interests & their implications in these relations?”

      At very least, we recognise that living beings are alive. The nature of life would indicate that harm can be done, whether or not the being perceives that harm as we do, We can argue whether a tree suffers, but from the standpoint of life, few would argue that cutting down a tree, killing it, harms that tree. The same for a worm, or an ant. Harm is, therefore, more objective that “suffering”. Colb eventually gets there in her consideration of whether a being can be harmed when they are killed painlessly and instantly while unconscious, given that on death, “suffering” is meaningless. In the quote I used, she finally comes to the instinctive sense we have that being killed is harm, even if we don’t know when it happens, and no-one else cares. For the living, being killed is harm, whether or not there is pain or suffering

      The problem with sentience will always be where we “draw the line”, and what that means for animals “on the other side”. If you look online, there are a number of “Whoopee!” articles about how vegans can eat clams, mussels, scallops, etc, guilt-free. We can claim those people are not vegans, but if we define veganism in terms of sentience, and define those animals as non-sentient… Some people try to say fish are not sentient, so they can eat fish. Likewise, there are claims birds are not sentient. It’s all just moving the “ethical” goalposts to allow us to eat other animals. It is, virtually always, about someone’s palate pleasure. You and I could agree these people are not vegans, but where veganism is defined as “not using animals with X”, and some animals are defined as “without X” (where X is “sentience” or “subjects of a life” or “self-consciousness”, or whatever), then according to that definition, they are vegans. The problem with all these definitions is that some people look for loopholes. Buddhists do it, Jains do it, and even “vegans” do it.

      In my view, it’s all arbitrary. Using sentience as the criterion is arbitrary. Defining sentience is arbitrary. Simply saying that using animals, treating them as things, rather than as living beings is wrong because they are animals as we are, is also arbitrary. But in my mind, it comes closer to the spirit of veganism than the endless wrangling over which animals are sentient. The fact that we can live a good, healthy life without needing to use or kill any animals is enough reason not to kill or use them. Honestly, we know killing animals harms them. And we know they are not things, not objects. That’s why we class them as living beings. If they are not objects, treating them as if they are not alive, don’t have their own life, is harm.

      As to plants: they are also alive. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid using and killing them. We are not “spirit beings” or disembodied intellects. We can easily stop using animals. We cannot survive without using plants. Differentiating between them is speciesist, and relies on the fact that we are animals, so we privilege all animals because they are like us. It is like seeing that all humans are humans, so no matter what tribe, nation, race, they are like us. Extending principles of non-use to all animals is like extending to all humans the idea that killing or treating them as objects, things, property, is wrong.

      You argue:

      Firstly, your argument doesn’t examine plant sentience at all. It is an argument that acknowledging plant sentient would make some arguments difficult, that it would be inconvenient. The view Colb offers, that I cite in my blog, is not that “we, as vegans, minimize the suffering of plants”. It is rather that we, as animals, cannot survive without using plants. The fact that a plant-based diet minimises use over an omnivorous one is a consolation, not a strategy.

      I’m suggesting sentience is not the best criterion, so whether plants are sentient doesn’t matter. But they are alive, not “things”. Basically, my argument is simply that we basically have no need at all to use or kill any animal. We can live quite happily without using animals. We do need to use plants. So, that’s where we make the divide, and I acknowledge that divide is arbitrary. That simple divide, “just because they’re animals” takes care of all issues of animal use, including clams, sponges, honey, and silk.

      • I feel like most trouble doesn’t come from being unable to find a working definition of sentience. Instead I’d say, what causes most problems are much rather the epistemics – the task of finding (preferably testable/observable) truth conditions for it, and being able to bridge one’s observations with whatever concept of sentience one holds by means of a conclusive argument that these conditions indeed suffice to establish or deny sentience.

        The problem I have with the life criterion (Allow me to call it LC, for lazyness’ sake. Also SC for the sentience criterion) is, that I do not see how to argue normatively from it. Sentience on the other hand has this very neat property that the experiences qua sentience already come with an evaluative nature. It becomes almost trivial that bad experiences are just bad in a normatively binding sense. This magician’s trick doesen’t work for the LC in the nonsentient case: Assuming that there is no experience involved, I don’t see how one can say that a tree is subjectively harmed in a relevantly similar way to a sentient organism. What remains, if we still like to make sense of a tree’s harms are just teleology & metaphoric interpretations (or am I missing something?), which both don’t easily allow for any simple arguments on the ethical side. Even worse, I think we have convincing examples, where we’d probably agree that teleological & metaphorical “harms” are at least ethically neutral or even good: E.g. when I’d destroy a butcher’s tools, I’d have (fatally) harmed the tools in the teleological sense, but I can’t see how we as vegans could disagree on that that’ still a good thing nonetheless. Suppose for argument’s sake that this particular butcher for some reason likes to use some[thing|one] alive and nonsentient to kill (like Meningitis-inducing Bacteria). Does that really make a difference? I can’t see why it should. The case of metaphorical harm can be similarly discussed.

        As with the problem of the boundary-cases, you get quite similar trouble with the LC. At what point of mitosis do you have two life forms? When does a growing grain/pollen become an organism? How do you distinguish (bio-)artifacts from lifeforms etc. pp.? One can reasonably expect to find just as much self serving thinking on these questions by people who accept the LC, than we’re seeing self serving discussions on boundary-cases emmerging from the SC by the “sentientists” (Not saying though that necessarily your linked discussions are self serving; I haven’t looked at them in detail). I’d say, the problems im both cases lie with the self serving thinking – not with the critertia.

        Also sorry for the slight misinterpretation on plant sentience, but my worry remains the same. If you replace the SC with the LC you get the same class of moral subjects no matter if you accept that plants satisfy the SC, or whether you switch to the LC instead. My worry was, that for this class it’s impossible or at least very difficult to maintain a rights-based approach. This last point might not be obvious, so I should probably have argued for it. I’ll just do that now: Of course, to give a compelling argument, one would first have to discuss what rights are, but let me shortcut this by invoking the minimal metaphorical characterization of “rights as trumps” in cases of conflict between interests (Dworkin ’78 would be your reference here; Dworkin’s essay in Waldron ’84 is more succinct). When you have perpetual, unavoidable conflict, the hierarchy between some <em<basic interests that are protected by rights, as opposed to the other interests that aren’t, becomes meaningless. Using the metaphor, “in a game, where everything is trump, nothing is trump”. What we’ll be left with, is balancing interests on an evened level, which is just some form of utilitrarianism.

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