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Why is the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness morally important?

Last week was a milestone for animals. Prominent scientists, philosophers and policy experts came together to sign the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness, a statement detailing a consensus that mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, cephalopods (like octopuses), crustaceans (like crabs) and even insects most probably have subjective experiences, known as “sentience”.

This may not come as a surprise to many of us, but academic research is often characterised by disagreement. A public announcement of consensus is not only profoundly unusual, it also brings into view just how substantial the evidence is that many more animals have conscious experiences than we often assume.

The moral importance of the declaration.

The declaration has morally important consequences for public policy and ethical decision-making. It claims that:

“When there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal.”

The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness

If such a vast number of animals are likely to have conscious experiences, then this implies we ought to rethink practices involving or impacting them, including how we spend public money to address animal welfare concerns.

If an animal possesses sentience, they count as the kind of being that can be morally wronged. Once this is recognised many pressing issues become salient: just a few areas of concern include the use of animals in experimentation; urban design and “pest” management; and our use of animals as resources.

Whilst these issues can seem overwhelming, we are not facing them empty-handed. There is a wealth of literature that has already began to propose solutions to the above problems, and many more besides. The declaration calls on us to take these solutions seriously.

Is sentience the whole story?

Nonetheless, there is a further question about just how much moral importance the declaration has: is sentience all we need to work out how and why we can wrong beings? If it is, then the declaration has even more significant consequences.

Many philosophers have historically held that other capacities (such as for reason, or sociality) could mark moral distinctions between some beings and others. For instance, Kant famously premised his whole philosophy on the capacity for a rational will. Philosophers in this tradition hold that even if animals have sentience, we might be strongly obligated to prioritise some beings (normally rational agents), and to focus primarily on questions concerning them.

An alternative idea often lurking in the background of much current work in animal ethics is that sentience fully explains how and why humans and other animals can be wronged.[1] This is by no means a conclusion any signatory to the declaration is committed to. But it is one that I find plausible.

This is because the traditional view doesn’t hold up to a simple test of redundancy: we do not need further moral distinctions to make sense of how and why we can wrong one another, we only need to refer to sentience. We can explain the value of any other capacity, like rationality, in terms of sentience: rationality is valuable in allowing us to achieve things and appreciate those achievements. For instance, you can use your rationality to plan to do the things you most enjoy. If this follows, sentience may be the crucial piece in the whole story about wronging both humans and animals.

This is because sentience illuminates why an animal’s capacities are valuable to the animal. To see this, consider the fact that every animal has their niche, as Ed Yong’s recent book An Immense World makes clear. An eagle’s sight is extraordinarily advanced. Dolphins can echolocate. And crows engage in communal learning. But all these animals possess sentience, and so each animal’s niche is valuable to the animal because they have a subjective experience of the world which allows them to value it. In this light, human capacities are no more unique than the capacities of other animals.

This straightforward view is attractive: I find it plausible that sentience really is the whole story when it comes to questions of wronging. This matters because it impacts how radical our response to the facts about nonhuman sentience should be. If sentience is the whole story about how much a being matters morally, then animals should be included in almost every decision-making procedure we engage in, and we should give their interests as much priority as we give those of humans.

This is only the beginning.

There is still so much we do not know about the extent, kind, and character of nonhuman experiences. Further research will inform policy-making about how to treat animals and respond to their needs, as well as shedding further light on questions like the one above.

But we cannot simply wait for this research to be done: the moral importance of animal consciousness also makes discussion about what policies should be adopted and their implementation a matter of urgency. That discussion is needed at every level of social discourse. We all need to adapt and change our own lifestyles in line with a concern for animals’ consciousness. We cannot take our time while sentient beings are currently suffering at human hands.

To read more about sentientism, and what you can do to help sentient animals, visit the sentientism website.


[1] This is an idea traditionally defended by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer.

Matt Perry

Matt Perry is postdoctoral research fellow at The University of British Colombia, Vancouver. His research focuses on animal rights, dignity, moral status & interspecies social relations. Find out more at https://mwperry1.wixsite.com/m-w-perry

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2 Comments

  1. Tristan Katz

    While I agree wholeheartedly with the main points of this article, I think it’s important not to exaggerate the wording in the declaration:

    The declaration states that there is “a realistic possibility of conscious experience in…[many]…insects”.
    This is qualitatively different from saying that insects “most probably have subjective experiences”.

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