Recently, the UK government has received bad press for excluding a reference to animal sentience from a legal statute. The clause at issue was a part of an EU regulation which ensures that each state, 'since animals are sentient beings, pays full regard to the welfare requirements of animals' in formulating all policies that involve them. The government decided to leave this out of UK law in future, as part of the secession from the EU.
Why would the government seek to do this? A couple of ideas include:
1. Creating more flexibility in policy making, in order to give the UK a competitive advantage in developing agricultural and industrial policy
2. Preparing the way for a relaxation of hunting regulations, as it removes a constraint on forms of hunting that cause animals distress or pain
Two questions arise from the current debate:
1. Are animals sentient beings?
2. Should animal welfare be given priority over human requirements?
ARE ANIMALS SENTIENT BEINGS?
There are two parts to this question, relating to two primary meanings of the word sentient. Firstly, are animals able to feel pain? And secondly, are animals conscious of their painful experiences?
Taking the first question first: humans get very confused when it comes to deciding if other species can feel. They get all tangled up in debates about what it is to feel. Some say feeling is simply the ability to respond to sensory data. By that argument, even plants have feelings, because they evidently respond to such stimuli as light, heat and wind by changing their behaviour. To find a definition that applies to animals rather than plants, some people point to the development of a complex nervous system as a definer. So, the argument goes, if you have a complex network of sensors that report stimuli to a central system - a bit like mobile phones have begun to do - then this qualifies the being for special treatment. A problem with this is that, as I just hinted, even some modern mobile phones might qualify for special rights under these definitions. Complexity of response is a problematic way to distinguish animals as worthy of special treatment, because if we apply it to animals, we may have to apply it to machines in due course.
A HIGHER DEFINITION OF SENTIENCE: CONSCIOUSNESS OR SUBJECTIVITY?
If we discard an ability to respond or recoil as a definer of welfare rights, we are left with the idea that we may have to find something special in the response of certain animals which makes them worthy of privilege. There are two main concepts which are used in developing this idea.
Firstly, there is the concept of consciousness. Consciousness has two main sides to it. Firstly, an ability to reflect on your own experience. This falls prey to the above problem of generalisability to machines: many machines, as they develop, will be able to reflect on their own experience, in the sense of being able to create metaperceptions of their own perceptions. For example, a computer can already observe the way it is experiencing data management, and adjust its metacognitions, or master concepts, in the light of what it learns. This is one of the principles of machine learning being incorporated in artificial intelligence projects.
The second main side to consciousness is the mysterious one. It is best expressed by your surprise when you realise that you are a sentient being stuck inside yourself - you feel like you are kind of inside your own head, uniquely, and are nowhere else. You cannot explain where this 'self' came from, nor where it is going; you just feel strongly that your awareness, your perspective, is unique. Humans have developed some ability to extend this awareness to their fellow humans - in other words, they have come to a general understanding that each human, because similar, is likely to experience the same sense of being a unique centre of awareness. We talk of 'subjectivity', meaning the understanding that, in our communications, we are each unique centres of awareness.
ARE ANIMALS SUBJECTIVE BEINGS TOO?
Humans have developed ethical structures around this sense of common subjectivity. But they have trouble extending this to animals. Much thought has been expended trying to justify a boundary between humans and other animals. You can see it in many religious approaches, which seem to give humans a special position in a hierarchy of being. You can see it in much literature, which seems to glorify the human individual's centre of awareness as unique in comparison to an animal.
But at what point does an animal acquire a subjective nature, in the sense of being a unique centre of awareness? And why do some humans still insist on differentiating between human subjectivity and animal perception?
A PROBLEM IN HUMANKIND RATHER THAN IN ANIMALS
I would like to suggest that the problem here lies in a unique deficiency of humans, rather than a unique awareness. It goes like this:
Other species are able to live their lives without the assumption that they are special. Humans, however, have a thing I'd like to label 'Interspecies Psychopathy Disorder', or IPD. A species suffering from IPD cannot conceive of any other species having the same powers, and therefore the same value, as it does. It lives in its own little bubble of power-hungriness and self-aggrandisement.
This explains why the government cannot include a sentience clause in the latest legislative adaptations. This is especially true of a conservative government, which by definition sees itself as there to continue recent historical views rather than develop new ones. As the heads of a state of people with IPD, they feel duty-bound to make life more comfortable for those who wish to continue being power-hungry and self-aggrandising. Anything else might cause undue shock in the general population, as they realise that they are not alone on the planet, but part of a network of sentience, in the sense of subjective consciousness, that extends beyond humans.
We don't want to scare the masses.
BEYOND INTERSPECIES PSYCHOPATHY DISORDER
Some may wish to develop beyond human-specific concerns, and see the world as more of a network of different, but equally valuable, consciousnesses. They may even wish to stop being terrified by the idea, and to start thinking that empathy with all things, even so-called lower beings, is a generally good thing. Such people may even find themselves becoming happier, as their need for self-protection, and therefore fear, reduces. I couldn't possibly comment.