I’ve had some great conversations since my article on sentientism was published in Areo. As a reminder, sentientism is an ethical philosophy that applies evidence and reason and extends moral consideration to all sentient beings. Sentient beings have the ability to experience things – suffering or flourishing. They include humans, non-human animals and potentially even artificial or alien intelligences.
One recurring theme of those conversations runs as follows…
“Humanism already does a good enough job. Most humanists do care about non-human animals (~40% are vegan or vegetarian) and we can stretch the humanist concept easily to sentient AIs. Humanists UK already references sentient non-human animals in its definition. The term humanism only applies to the objects – we can and do extend our concern to non-human subjects. Humanism is already a reasonably well organised movement via the IHEU and national organisations. Humanism is a simpler term and is already widely understood. Sentientism will just confuse people and may fragment an important progressive movement.”
I have a great deal of sympathy with these lines of argument. I see humanism as a critically important force for good that I don’t want to distract from or fragment. That gave me serious pause for thought when deciding whether to put effort into my rather amateur project to popularise sentientism.
The central reason I decided to go ahead was the term humanism itself. While many humanists do extend their circles of concern more widely, the term humanism implies and encourages a focus on one species and gives us all excuses for cognitive dissonance and akrasia (not that we need any). A few specific symptoms stand out for me:
• I can only find one IHEU or Humanist organisation campaign that focuses on non-human animals, that re: pre-stunning slaughter. The campaign does address animal suffering as a factor but seems just as motivated by wanting to avoid privileging supernatural views
• Two of my favourite humanist books (Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now by Steve Pinker) – include a focus on animal cruelty but hardly mention the rapidly increasing, industrial scale suffering caused by animal farming. That sickening oversight is typical of the humanist, anthropomorphic perspective
• While many humanists are ethical vegans or vegetarians, most are not – implying that they cannot even have a base level of moral consideration for sentient animals
• Humanism only considers humans as moral agents or subjects. Other sentients are moral subjects too. Morality, at least in rudimentary forms, existed long before humans
• Some humanists use their interpretation of the philosophy to justify mis-treatment of other species to further human ends
• Many humanists struggle to understand that non-human artificial or alien intelligences may eventually warrant moral consideration.
So, in my view, humanism needs this upgrade. Anthropomorphism limits us and our morality.
At the very least, I’d like to keep the debate going and maintain a constructive pressure on the humanism movement.