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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 best assessed 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 (The Animal Interfaith Alliance has many examples). 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 learn, 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. These themes can be found in African, Asian and ancient Greek thinking, for example. Some of these historic figures can be found on our “Suspected Sentientists” page, alongside more modern rational, compassionate people.
The term Sentientism itself was coined in the 1970s. The first formal use of the term I know of so far is in a 1975 paper by Joseph L. Lewis called “Homo Sapienism: Critique of Roe v. Wade and Abortion“. The central thrust of the paper pushes back on the Roe v. Wade abortion decision by insisting that the homo sapiens species designation should apply regardless of sentience. The term “intelligent sentientism” is used to refer to the possibility of extending “homo sapienism” to other forms of intelligent life including genetically engineered or future evolved humans, “restored undermen” and even intelligent aliens. Sentient non-human animals are not considered.
More appropriately, the term was then used in a derogatory sense by John Rodman to describe the anti-speciesist work of philosophers like Peter Singer and Richard Ryder. Rodman criticised their sentience-based morality as discriminatory against non-sentient beings (it is – but for good reason!). In his 1977 paper, “The Liberation of Nature?”, Rodman casts Sentientism as an elitist, self-serving human project that arbitrarily condemns all of the non-sentient entities in wider ecosystems, including abstract collective concepts, to having purely instrumental value. He comments:
“In the end, Singer achieves ‘an expansion of our moral horizons’ just far
enough to include most animals, with special attention to those categories of
animals most appropriate for defining the human condition in the years
ahead. The rest of nature is left in a state of thinghood, having no intrinsic
worth, acquiring instrumental value only as resources for the well-being of
an elite of sentient beings. Homocentrist rationalism has widened out into
a kind of zoöcentrist sentientism.”
Both Singer and Ryder described Sentientism from the start as a naturalistic worldview – sometimes explicitly providing a secular alternative to religious ethical systems as in this 1991 paper by Ryder. Many in the animal ethics movements have used the terms Sentientism and sentiocentrism interchangeably, possibly because of an assumed naturalistic worldview, at least when it came to determining moral considerability.
In recent years, partly fuelled by Diana Fleischman’s work on popularising the term, I have suggested we 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 or moral consideration. In that sense it is similar to secular Humanism – but with a broader, deliberately non-anthropocentric moral scope. Second, as a pluralistic philosophical platform that specifies naturalism and sentiocentrism but remains neutral beyond those commitments. This platform approach is consistent with, but more neutral than both Singer’s explicitly utilitarian philosophy and Ryder’s later Painism, an approach that weights suffering more strongly and proposes an alternative to rights and utilitarian approaches. This re-casting would leave the term “sentiocentrism” to apply to the granting of moral consideration to all sentient beings while using “Sentientism” to describe an explicitly naturalistic worldview that grants the same moral consideration.
Many thanks to Josh Milburn for his help on tracking down some of the references above. All errors remain my own!
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.
Sentientism states that all sentient beings should be granted meaningful moral consideration but it doesn’t specify that consideration has to be equal. It also remains neutral on which sort of moral approach (e.g. utility, deontology, virtue, consequences) should be used to balance or decide between competing interests.
Some sentientists do suggest we should grant equal moral consideration. They argue that even if some sentients have a simpler sentient experience than others, even that sentience could be just as visceral and important to that being. They also argue that more complex sentients, like humans, have cognitive capabilities not available to simpler sentients, that can help us to mitigate our suffering. We might understand the reasons for our negative experiences or be able to reduce our suffering through meditation, medication or distraction.
Other sentientists are comfortable granting different degrees of moral consideration to different sentients based on their estimated degrees of sentience. However, even minimally sentient beings warrant a meaningful level of moral consideration that would see needlessly harming or killing them as a moral negative. The transient preferences of a human (for example taste or social norm pleasures) are insufficient justification for harming or killing even a simple sentient.
When it comes down to it, I suspect nearly all sentientists, if they could save only one from a burning building, would choose to save the human.