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In a sentence, sentientism is “Evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings”. Sentientism is a worldview or philosophy – a way of thinking about what to believe in and what to care about. It is committed to using evidence and reason and grants moral consideration to all sentient beings. You can find out more here.
Sentience is the capacity to have experiences. It can be seen as synonymous with consciousness or as a component of consciousness. Negative experience can be called suffering and positive experience can be called flourishing or well-being. Suffering and flourishing can take many forms, from physical pains and pleasures through to hopes and fears, existential angst and love. There may be varieties of sentient experience we cannot yet imagine. There are more useful resources on Sentience here.
Morality is about assessing whether intentions, decisions and actions are good or bad. We can separate good/bad intentions and actions from good/bad moral outcomes, but ultimately both are judged by how the quality of sentient experiences are affected. In that sense, moral negatives (bad) are grounded in suffering and death (the end of sentient experience) whereas moral positives (good) are grounded in flourishing. Sentientism says that, given this is the case, any being capable of suffering or flourishing should be given moral consideration. All suffering and flourishing should matter – so all sentient beings should matter.
Sentience is very similar to consciousness, in that sentience is being conscious of experiences. However, Consciousness is sometimes defined as including additional capabilities beyond sentience such as creative thinking, forward planning, intelligence or sapience. Sentientism cares morally about the suffering or flourishing of all sentient beings whether or not they have these additional capabilities.
In short, human and non-human animals. Sentientism doesn’t define which beings are sentient, it just says we should follow the science. That science will always be provisional and our assessment of sentience will be probabilistic, so many sentientists give the benefit of the doubt where sentience is unclear. Current science has a high degree of confidence that non-living things (rocks, rivers), plants and some of the simplest animals (e.g. sea cucumbers) are not sentient. Plants can exhibit complex behaviours and even communications, but don’t appear have the information processing architecture required for sentience. It is conceivable that we might create or encounter other types of being, such as alien or artificial intelligences, that could be sentient. Sentientism would also grant them moral consideration.
Evidence is information about reality. If we want our beliefs to correspond more closely with reality, we should base them on evidence and reasoning about that evidence. Given the ever-changing, but always limited sensory and reasoning tools we have available, our evidence will always be provisional so our beliefs should be probabilistic and open to revision. That means we’re never completely right, but we’re generally, haltingly, getting less wrong. The primary alternatives to naturalism are various forms of supernaturalism. Given supernatural beliefs are beyond nature they are not supported by evidence. This generally means they are fabricated. The histories of the fabrications are often fairly transparent. Supernatural beliefs are also largely arbitrary, in that they don’t correspond to the real world. There are a functionally infinite number of beliefs for which there is no good evidence – so the choice of which to believe is arbitrary. Some supernatural beliefs don’t have directly harmful effects but many of them do – leading to poor decisions and often discriminatory, harmful ethical systems.
Er… no. If anything, it’s an anti-cult. Cults enforce dogmatic, unchallengable beliefs whereas sentientism is committed to using evidence and reason to form probabilistic, provisional beliefs that are always open to new evidence and critical thinking. Cult organisations are autocratic in nature with strict organisational boundaries and penalties for leaving. Large, old or socially accepted cults are often called religions – although some religions don’t have cult characteristics. In contrast, Sentientism is a worldview, not an organisation. There is nothing to join or leave. If you’re committed to evidence, reason and grant moral consideration to all sentient beings – you’re a sentientist. If you’re not, you’re not. People can join our various online communities – but those are open to anyone interested, not just sentientists.
Sentientists welcome broad compassion whether it’s motivated by supernatural beliefs or not. Many religions are deeply compassionate and some extend this compassion to all humans and to non-human sentient beings. Some are sentiocentric – a broader term that means granting moral consideration to all sentient beings. Sentientism adds an important naturalistic stance that is both a more solid ethical grounding, and corresponds more closely to reality, than a supernatural or religious worldview. People with religious or supernatural beliefs are sentient too – they deserve just the same compassion as any human.
Sentientism is neutral on these choices of ethical system. It is a deliberately simple moral “platform” that combines naturalism and sentiocentrism, but remains open on most other philosophical questions. A sentientist utilitarian or consequentialist might focus on suffering/flourishing consequences, a sentientist deontologist might apply rules about avoiding harm or death to sentient beings and granting them rights and a sentientist virtue ethicist might apply virtues of kindness and compassion to sentient beings.
The naturalistic and moral roots of sentientism pre-date humanity. Even the earliest life-forms used rudimental forms of evidence and reason in engaging with the world – finding energy and avoiding threats. Later, they evolved to be able to form internal models of the world and themselves. That capability helped them to survive, reproduce and evolve further. A basic co-operative morality of sorts also evolved at a very early stage as entities that worked collaboratively at various levels of organisation were successful in surviving, reproducing then evolving further. More advanced compassionate morality developed in early animals – through reciprocity and kin / group relationships.
Within human thought, naturalistic and sentiocentric philosophies have deep roots in many regions and cultures – largely pre-dating modern religious and influencing some of them.
The term sentientism itself was coined in the 1970s. It was used in a derogatory sense by John Rodman to describe the thinking of philosophers like Peter Singer and Richard Ryder as discriminatory against non-sentient beings (it is – but for good reason!). Both Singer and Ryder described sentientism from the start as a naturalistic worldview – often explicitly providing a secular alternative to religious ethical systems. In recent years, a movement has been developing that has re-cast sentientism in two ways. First, as a more broadly naturalistic worldview that applies evidence and reason in all domains – not just when determining sentience (it is similar in that sense to secular humanism – but with a wider, non-anthropocentric moral circle). Second, as a pluralistic philosophical platform that specifies naturalism and sentiocentrism but remains neutral beyond those commitments (whereas Singer’s sentientism was more explicitly utilitarian, for example).
Having compassion for a being doesn’t mean we condone its actions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t constrain, harm or even kill them if doing so has a sufficiently strong moral justification.
The only aspect of justice undermined by having universal compassion is retribution – the wish to cause harm to a moral agent simply because they’ve done wrong so “deserve it” – not because the punishment will have any positive effect.
Compassionate or sentientist justice might instead focus on restoration, rehabilitation, deterrence, prevention and protection. Justice that aims to reduce future suffering and enhance future flourishing – not just punishing for punishments’s sake.