Sentientist Justice

“Drop the retribution.
Instead use restoration, rehabilitation, protection and deterrence.
Justice for all sentient beings.”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings”. It combines a naturalistic way of understanding reality with granting moral consideration to all sentient beings – any being capable of experiencing suffering or flourishing. What implications might it have for how we think about justice?

Objectives and Structure – Suffering and Flourishing: A sentientist conception of justice is likely to be mainly concerned with reducing suffering and enhancing flourishing. Social contracts, reciprocal relationships and commitments, rights, fairness and balance are likely to be seen as useful concepts – but as tools that can be used to help reduce suffering and enhance flourishing, not as ultimate ends for justice in their own right. Given sentientism rejects supernatural beliefs, a sentientist justice won’t see any relevance in obedience to divine command.

Scope – All Sentience and All Sentients: A sentientist justice would recognise all harms caused to any sentient being. In practical terms, that largely means human and non-human animals, but could conceivably extend to other types of sentient should we encounter or create them.

Compassion for the Perpetrators: While most forms of justice are at least in part motivated by compassion for those harmed, a sentientist justice would also extend compassion universally to those that have caused harm. As we will see, that doesn’t mean perpetrators can’t be punished or constrained. Compassion doesn’t imply appeasement or weakness.

Individual Sentients over Groups and Identities: A sentientist justice is likely to focus on the harms done to or by individual sentients more than defining justice in terms of groups harmed or doing harm. At the same time, it would recognise the complex, rich and powerful effects, both positive and negative, that group and identity memberships can have on every sentient being in different contexts. Generalisations can be very useful when they’re carefully made – but the root of moral value is in individual sentient experiences.

This short video by Philippe Sands sets out some related thinking on the challenges of genocide, a crime defined in terms of harms to groups rather than individuals. He suggests that, while genocide will remain a powerful term, it prioritises harms to some groups while ignoring others, risks reinforcing tribalism and focuses strongly on intent as much as on actual harms caused – making it hard to prove. Thanks to @LizJService for sharing this with me.

Outcomes over Intent: A sentientist justice would focus strongly on the harms caused and the harms that might be caused. Intent, attitude or behavioural tendencies would be relevant because they help assess the likelihood of an entity carrying out future harms. A psychopath needs constraining even before they have killed.

Punishment Motivations: Decisions over just punishment are often shaped by the motivations set out below. I’ve suggested whether and how each of these might apply in a sentientist justice:

Motivations Rejected in Sentientist Justice

  • Retribution: Harming a perpetrator because of a sense they “deserve” to suffer because of the harm they have caused. The perpetrator is seen as a moral agent that can be blamed. As retribution causes additional harm with no other benefits (apart from a potential sense of satisfaction in the punisher) it is unlikely to be a motivator in sentientist justice.

Valid Punishment Motivations in Sentientist Justice

  • Protection: Constraining, even in extremis killing, a perpetrator to protect other sentients from future harm.
  • Deterrence: Punishing a perpetrator to deter them and other perpetrators from causing similar harms.
  • Education: Punishing a perpetrator to signal to wider society that causing such harms is unacceptable. In a way this is a broader form of social deterrence.
  • Restoration: Involving the perpetrator in mitigating or putting right the harms they have caused.
  • Rehabilitation: Improving the intent, tendencies, decision architecture or predilections of the perpetrator to make it less likely they’ll cause future harms. This might be attempted in a variety of ways.

Free Will and Moral Agency Neutral: Retributive justice systems depend on the concept of moral agents with free will that can be blamed, then punished for the harms they cause. A sentientist justice that is primarily concerned with future suffering and flourishing of sentients doesn’t depend on concepts of agency or free will. What matters is whether an entity caused harm and is likely to cause harms in the future. Their degree of agency or the freedom of their will is irrelevant. The deterministically driven, agent-less perpetrator can still be rehabilitated, their behaviour can still be adapted by deterrence and education, victims can still be protected and harms done can still be restored.

Sentientists disagree on the existence and salience of free will and moral agency, but many, including myself, are sceptical. Personally, I don’t think the concept of a perfectly “free” will is even coherent. Whether my decisions are driven by deterministic or probabilistic processes – they are not free for “me” to control. Any entity (“me”) taking supposedly free decisions is itself either determinstic or probabilistic at base. There is no escape. We are amazing, but we are physics – patterns of information processing running on complex physical substrates. If I’m right, it’s important that we don’t have a justice system that collapses without free will and moral agency.

Broadly Applicable and Future Proof: A final benefit of this type of sentientist justice is that it is universally applicable. It can work for any entity that causes or may cause harm. It may seem outlandish, but even wild non-human animals, artificial intelligences and algorithms (sentient or not) may eventually come within its scope.


I’m looking forward to the forthcoming book “Just Deserts – Debating Free Will” by Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett. They’ll do this job much more professionally than I have. I’m very interested to read what they conclude and whether they’re bold enough to think about justice beyond our own species.

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