Humanism needs an upgrade: Is Sentientism the philosophy that could save the world?

Versions of this article were published in Areo in October 2018 and in Free Inquiry in April 2019.

There is a little-known philosophy, well-founded in reality, that provides a sound basis for compassionate ethics and which will eventually become our predominant way of thinking. That’s partly because adopting this philosophy will give us the best chance of addressing the world’s problems, from the climate change crisis to the impact of artificial general intelligence. That philosophy is Sentientism. Like secular humanism, it commits to using evidence and reason and grants moral consideration to all humans. Sentientism then breaks with this anthropocentrism (centring on humans) and goes further. It grants moral consideration to all sentient beings—any being that can experience, particularly those that can experience suffering or flourishing.

Let’s go on a philosophical journey

We start with using evidence and reason as the basis of our beliefs – because reality is all there is. Fictional stories are real things too – as patterns of brain activity, states within computers or as ink on a page – but the subjects of those stories do not exist in their own right.

The use of evidence and reason goes beyond the scientific method as narrowly defined, but scientific thinking is at its core. This naturalistic approach rejects faith-based, dogmatic or revealed beliefs in the supernatural and mystical because there doesn’t seem to be sufficient evidence for their existence. If evidence of these types of phenomena were discovered, they would arguably no longer be supernatural, and we could build factual knowledge about them.

This naturalistic worldview leads most to atheism, in the sense of believing gods very likely don’t exist, because there is insufficient evidence for their existence. Atheism implies little about ethics—except to stipulate that ethical thinking shouldn’t be driven by a belief in deities or religions.

So with a naturalistic worldview, we can instead construct our own ethics: first, by granting moral consideration for all humans. We do so not because of species solidarity but because we know directly, from our own experience, that we value our lives and can both suffer and flourish—that is, that we can experience both qualitatively bad and good things. Science and our own experience show us that other humans experience suffering and flourishing largely as we do. We then care about the experiences of other humans because of our evolved tendencies to cooperate and feel compassion, because of enlightened self-interest, and perhaps because we strive to take an impartial standpoint not bound to our own perspective – attempting to value the lives and experiences of others as they do. For many, that is the essence of morality almost by definition. While many aspire to feel equal compassion for all humans, most of us prioritize some over others—but we grant at least some meaningful moral consideration to all. That leads us to humanism—a commitment to evidence, reason, and at least, compassion for all humans.

Let’s take a further step… Sentientism: “Evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings.”

Sentientism is a worldview or philosophy that, like humanism, rejects faith-based, dogmatic or revealed ways of knowing and instead uses evidence and reason to try and understand reality. However, Sentientism explicitly grants moral consideration to all sentient beings, not just humans. Sentience is the capacity to experience – most saliently, to experience suffering and flourishing. Things that can’t experience might be important in other instrumental ways, but they don’t warrant our moral consideration intrinsically. A mountain or a river or a plant is important only because of the effect it has on the lives and experiences of sentient beings, including us humans. A mountain on a distant, uninhabited, unobserved planet is morally irrelevant.

Sentientism goes further than humanism because humans aren’t the only sentient beings. These others deserve our moral consideration too. The most obvious are non-human animals. While scientific debate continues on the boundaries of sentience (sea sponges, for example, are animals with no brain or nervous system), it’s clear that very many animals, particularly those we farm and fish in their trillions, are sentient. It’s sentience, not a somewhat arbitrary species boundary, that matters.

Eventually, we may also create or come across new types of sentient beings: sentient artificial intelligences or even alien species. It may seem fanciful but surely to be future-proofed our ethics should help us think about how we should treat them and how they should treat each other, even as we also worry about how they will treat us.

The diversity of sentient beings is already breathtaking and science indicates that degrees and types of sentience might vary substantially. The sentientist position I take personally allows us to grant different degrees of moral consideration depending on where on the sentience spectrum (or spectra) each being lies and on the particular interests they might have. This contrasts with an alternative approach, still consistent with sentientism, which suggests all sentient beings warrant equal moral consideration.  Mark Wright wrote an interesting Areo article criticising this latter approach here.  Sentientism also avoids over-anthropomorphising animals.  They are likely to experience differently from humans in some ways – but their ability to experience still warrants at least a base level of moral consideration, meaning we wouldn’t needlessy harm or kill any sentient.

If you’re a humanist atheist and an ethical vegan, you might be a sentientist already. Although you may be unfamiliar with the term, the epistemology and ethics will probably fit. However, the vast majority of people around the world disagree with sentientism in practice, if not in theory. Many, while using evidence and reason daily, still grant the validity of faith-based, dogmatic or revealed knowledge in some areas of their lives. Most, in practice, don’t grant even minimal moral consideration to non-human animals because they needlessly use products that require their exploitation, suffering and death – something we’ve nearly all been taught is normal, even good. Still others don’t grant proper moral consideration to sub-groups of humans, based on caste, gender, sex, skin color, worldview, race, sexual orientation, disability, class, nation or some other classification or group membership.

How can Sentientism help us?

Sentientism encapsulates the benefits of humanism, already an important pluralistic philosophy and a growing, global movement. Both worldviews are pro-human rights and focused on our common global humanity. Both are anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-ageist, anti-ableist, anti-fascist and anti-LGBTQ+ phobic. Both humanism and sentientism help us focus on what we have in common—our humanity and our sentience. Identity-based politics can help identify problems and provide mutual support within groups. Humanism and sentientism can help us develop solutions that we can all identify with and work on together—given our shared reality and reasoning.

Like humanism, sentientism is pro-science, reason, and evidence and therefore  against fabrication, fake news, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, moral relativism, and faith-based religious and supernatural thinking. All the problems and opportunities we face—from the existential threats of climate change, nuclear war, and biological or technological development (including AI) to the immediate challenges of global poverty, conflict prevention, development, and health—are better addressed with facts and critical thinking rather than arbitrary dogma.

Yet there are two areas in which sentientism goes further than humanism. First, animal exploitation is a critical issue in its own right, given the almost 100 billion land animals and trillions of sentient aquatic animals we harm and kill each year for food, drink, and other animal products. Transitioning away from animal farming and fishing is also an important step toward reducing our negative impact on the environment in terms of land, water, and energy use; emissions; and pollution. While many humanists already grant moral consideration to non-human animals (for example, the national organization Humanists UK now mentions “a concern for non-human sentient animals” in its definition of humanism), sentientism makes that explicit and central, as it views needlessly causing the suffering and death of sentient animals, including through farming and fishing, as an ethical wrong.

Sentientism also helps us think through and prepare for the implications of artificial intelligence – general or otherwise.  We need to crystallise and evolve our own ethics to help us direct or align or persuade the ethics of AIs safely – the concepts of sentience, evidence and reason help to do that. We also need to think carefully about the rights and moral consideration we might need to grant to AIs themselves if or when they attain and then increase in sentience. Let’s hope they’ll be sentientists too.

Sentientism as a movement?

Sentientism has remained a fairly niche term since it was first used (critically) by Joseph Lewis in 1975 and John Rodman in 1977. It was then developed, positively by thinkers including Richard D Ryder, Ros and Stan Godlovitch, Brigid Brophy and Peter Singer who rejected speciesism, discrimination based on species membership.  Since then, we have seen important yet separate developments in veganism and animal rights on the one hand and in the “Rise of the none’s”, atheism and humanism on the other.  These movements now have a plethora of international and local organisations building communities, driving activism and conducting lobbying– but there is little that brings the two threads together or underpins them. I would like to see sentientism play that role.

There is already an untapped synergy between these movements. In a 2019 show-of-hands poll of an audience of around a thousand U.K. humanists, approximately 40 percent said they were vegan or vegetarian—a rate much higher than that of the general population. It also appears, both anecdotally and in research by writers including Corey Lee Wrenn and Kim Socha, that ethical vegans are more likely to be atheists or humanists than the general population. To me, that’s because evidence, reason and compassion underlie both viewpoints.

A range of other developments and movements also hint at a latent sentientist philosophy. Environmental and ethical concerns are driving more people to think about the animal suffering we cause and the damage to the planet occasioned by animal farming and fishing. The development of artificial intelligence is stimulating new fields of thought about robot rights. People are starting to recognize the limitations of the more exclusionary forms of identity politics in improving social cohesion and community building. The Effective Altruism movement aspires to use evidence and reason to find out how we can do the most good for all sentient life.

Maybe it’s time for us to pick up on these hints and upgrade humanism to sentientism. Rather than remaining as a niche philosophical concept, sentientism could build on humanism’s momentum as an inclusive, well-grounded, potentially unifying movement for addressing the world’s problems and opportunities – but for all sentients, not just us humans. Sentientism also taps into rich and ancient cultures of thought around the world and throughout history wherever rationality has been valued over mysticism and where ideas of moral consideration and compassion have long extended beyond the human species (ahimsa being just one of very many examples). Maybe sentientism also echoes how we start out in the world as children – open-minded, curious and with an inclusive sense of compassion for those around us – human and not.

Human cultures have enormous inertia and our traditional, in/out group ethics and religious memes run deep. However, our ways of thinking are, fortunately, relentlessly shaped by reality. That influence has already helped us make halting, but real, progress over the decades and centuries. Evidence and reason-based thinking proves its worth every day—there is no viable alternative to slowly, skeptically, haltingly becoming less wrong by observing reality and testing our thinking against it.

Reason and facts are also helping us to build a stronger foundation for our ethics. We are coming to understand more about sentient minds, what our experiences have in common with others even of other species, and how we can reduce suffering and flourish together.

While in/out group thinking can seem to work for the in-group in the short term,  we’re all learning, sometimes painfully, that we all do better as our moral scope expands and as we cooperate ever more widely—ultimately, with all sentient beings.

That’s why I’m optimistic. The truth will win through eventually, and sentientism, at its core, is a recognition of the truth.

If you’d like to find out more or let me know what you think, why not visit where you can sign up for email updates and even add yourself to our “wall” if Sentientism fits personally. You can also search for Sentientism on your podcast player or YouTube to find an inspiring collection of interviews with scientists, actors, academics, activists, CEOs and philosophers.

Whether or not you’re a sentientist, you’ll be made very welcome in any or all of our online communities. The biggest so far is here on Facebook. These aren’t just spaces for sentientists – they’re for anyone interested in the idea. We have interested lay people, academics, policy people, writers, activists and philosophers involved from over 100 countries so far.

Versions of this article were published in Areo in October 2018 and in Free Inquiry in April 2019.

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