Jeff Sebo is Clinical Assoc. Prof. of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, & Philosophy, & Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. He is on the executive committee at the NYU Center for Environmental & Animal Protection & the advisory board for the Animals in Context series at NYU Press. He is a board member at Animal Charity Evaluators, a board member at Minding Animals International, an Exec. Cttee. member at the Animals & Society Institute, and a Senior Fellow at Sentient Media.
In these Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
Sentientism is “evidence, commitment & compassion for all sentient beings.”
- Jeff’s background in moral & political philosophy & his shift to focus on animal & environmental ethics
- Multi-disciplinary approaches
- Using academia to drive real change
- Growing up in a Christian household & connecting with religious community (e.g. leading youth groups)
- Considering going into ministry
- College at Texas Christian University (liberal arts focus, but many conservative Christian students)
- Facing a wave of challenges to religious beliefs & having a major faith crisis
- “I never really believed the Christian stuff in the first place as much as I thought I did… in fact, I was just invested in the community.”
- A reactionary atheism phase: “God is dead, life is absurd!”
- Re-constructing a more generous interpretation of religious & scientific beliefs
- Deep humility re: the fundamental nature of reality
- The limits to empirical testing. There might be truths beyond those limits
- “Use evidence & reason to study what we can but recognise that they will not be able to grasp everything of interest in the world”
- Avoiding certainty (whether supernatural or claimed naturalistic), but also avoiding nihilism & giving up
- Socrates’ Euthyphro dilemma https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro
(are gods expressing the “good” or are gods good by identity?)
- Formal constructivism & anti-realism (values are things we create for ourselves)
- JW: “Before sentient beings existed, there was no morality”
- Christine Koorsgard: Value as an intrinsic aspect of agency
- Sharon Street (formal constructivism): Contingent reasons drive overlap in our values (bio/cog/culture)
- We can still constrain an ideally coherent Caligula who enjoys torturing
- “You don’t have to be moral, but the rest of us will constrain you”
- Valenced experience of sentient beings (suffering/flourishing) as a moral grounding
- Other perspectives for moral value beyond sentience?
- “My credence that Sentientism is the correct & only theory of moral status is lower than 1 but it is relatively high”
- Sentientism can rule out moral systems that are agreed within groups if they needlessly cause suffering
- Justifying practical ethics using meta-physics is skipping too many layers, but “suffering is bad” is pretty practical
- Growing up “normal” re: non-human animals
- Falling in love with ethics & existentialism
- Singer, Regan, Rachels
- “Sentience is, if not necessary, then at the very least sufficient for moral consideration”
- Going vegetarian then vegan
- Building an identity as an animal advocate
- Being open-minded about the scope of sentience
- The difficulty of assessing sentience & openness to broad sentience (plants, AI, all matter?)
- Danger of humans focusing on Sentience as a “things like us” characteristic (we’ve been too restrictive historically with other characteristics)
- Sentience as a counter to anthropocentrism
- Sentience as an evolved capacity… but why does it have to come with phenomenological consciousness. Why should it “feel like” anything? The “hard problem”
- Or is Sentience just what it feels like to run this type of info proc?
- Mental states about mental states. A conception of the self
- Sentience vs. consciousness
- The future: Including animals in public policy – a multi-species political society. Extend human politics (democracy, liberalism) or re-think from scratch
- “The future needs to look really different!”
- A unified multi-species approach, acknowledging differing norms
- Practical common ground (e.g. end animal farming) between diverse approaches
- “Just transition”
- Re-writing SDGs & the UDHR for all sentients
- Aspire then act.
Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at https://sentientism.info/. Join our “wall” using this simple form.
Everyone interested, Sentientist or not, is welcome in our groups. Our biggest (~90 countries so far) is here on FaceBook.
Thanks to Graham for his post-prod work. Follow him: @cgbessellieu.