“Rationality comes with responsibility” – Kathy Hessler – Sentientism Episode 136

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Kathy is Assistant Dean, Animal Legal Education at George Washington University Law School and Director of the Animal Legal Education Initiative. Kathy has been a clinical law professor for 30 years and has been teaching animal law for 22 years. She is the first law professor hired to teach animal law full-time. Kathy helped develop the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School (L&C). For fourteen years she taught there and directed the Animal Law Clinic. She also created and directed the Aquatic Animal Law Initiative and is the co-founder of World Aquatic Animal Day along with Amy P. Wilson. Kathy co-authored “Animal Law in a Nutshell”, “Animal Law – New Perspectives on  Teaching Traditional Law” and the amicus briefs submitted in the U.S. v. Stevens and Justice v. Gwendolyn Vercher cases. She has written numerous law review and other articles and teaches and lectures widely across the U.S. and internationally.

Kathy was a board member with the Animal Legal Defense Fund; helped found the Animal Law Committee of the Cuyahoga County Bar; and was the chair and a founder of the Animal Law Section and the Balance in Legal Education Section of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS). She was also a co-chair of the Clinical Legal Education Section of the AALS, is on the board of the Center for Teaching Peace and is a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome

01:30 Kathy’s Intro

  • #animallaw professor & practitioner
  • #nonviolence activism
  • “This is one area of law where students can do something today… to change things”
  • “& they’re implicated… what we eat, what we wear”
  • “It’s hard to say ‘all day I’m talking about protecting animals’ & go home & eat them”

06:39 What’s Real?

  • Raised #Catholic & #republican “Rules bounded, status quo, respected authority… dogmatically religious”
  • “You weren’t supposed to question”… just listen to parents & nuns
  • Noticing inconsistencies  (in one place girls can be altar servers, in another they can’t)
  • Mid to late #1960’s “A lot of questioning”
  • #Vatican II
  • Liking justice aspects, not liking treatment of women/indigenous people
  • Questioning in college
  • “If people who told me that god existed… were wrong about women… they could be wrong about god”
  • Finding #Liberationtheology but by then moving away from “being an obedient follower”
  • #Transubstantiation: Asking a priest: “I’m #vegan now, I don’t eat flesh, I don’t drink blood… I can’t do it.”… “He just kind of blew me off”
  • “If he’s not interested in inquiring… I think I already have the answer which is ‘I’m out'”
  • Leaving the church… “do I replace it with a different spiritual paradigm?” #buddhism #Quaker
  • “I’d moved away from the need to have guidance from that spiritual space”
  • “What I need to do is live in integrity in my life” #equity #justice #kindness #compassion
  • “Leaving the church was quite hard… it was everything I had been taught”
  • “Religions teach people to do really horrible things… & cover horrible things… & to hate other people & justify war”
  • “I do want to leave space for people who feel that [religious] way… not reject the people”
  • Indigenous & “Western” worldviews
  • #animalrights & #animalwelfare “It’s a problem that just did not need to be solved”
  • “As a lawyer I want to give people as much freedom to be who & what they are as possible until there’s a problem with that” (e.g. discrimination, bodily autonomy, #fgm )
  • Being vegan or atheist against parents’ wishes: “This is actually a rejection”… “it was painful for them… you could be going to hell”
  • Thinking protesters were crazy… then joining them in non-violence vigils
  • Going vegan: Not wanting to upset people but also wanting them to change “you can’t have it both ways”
  • “We didn’t even have the word [vegan] then – it seemed really extreme… there wasn’t a community.”

35:28 What Matters?

  • Is-ought?
  • Compassion vs. obedience & submission & #divinecommand
  • “It was easier, frankly, to rebel against a set of rules than to create for myself a set of rules”
  • “I realised I was going to have a problem with any system… Searching for a system was an abdication of personal responsibility”
  • Nihilism, relativism “neither of those felt good for me”
  • A non-violence framework “Do no harm”
  • “There’s no way to be completely 100% pure… that keeps me humble… that keeps me trying”
  • “The vegan police”, the journey, judgementalism, perfect being the enemy of the good, putting up roadblocks instead of welcoming
  • “For a long time vegan food it was hard… but now!”
  • Veganism as a joy & release rather than a sacrifice
  • “Rationality comes with responsibility”
  • “Other animals eat animals – why can’t we?… We can go to the grocery store and they can’t”
  • Wild animals and liminal animals
  • “If in a perfect world no animals had to eat other animals… but there’s so much known violence we have responsibility for”
  • “Violence is bad because it causes harm”

46:48 Who Matters?

  • From non-violence to the “isms”… racism, sexism, homophobism “I could see what I had already been implicit in… I don’t want to be able to look back and have someone go ‘here’s another ism you should have been thinking about’”
  • “Going to the floor” and “Eliminating all the isms” including speciesism
  • “Eliminating violence from the human side & not worrying about who the victims are”
  • Plants and rocks?
  • Are plants sentient?
  • “Wherever it is and whatever it is, sentience is morally salient”
  • Instrumental vs. intrinsic value
  • “Sentience as a marker is very human centric”… humans choosing whether to grant this capacity to others (Descartes!)
  • Non-human animals having more advanced capabilities than humans… but humans only value the human-like capacities
  • “Sentience is really helpful in the law… something judges can understand… if they feel pain…”
  • Human-centricity, human supremacy, anthropocentrism
  • Is punching a rock wrong?
  • “Extrinsically they are essential in the way we have chosen to live on the planet”
  • Humility… “make space for them to be who they are”
  • The evolution of sentience shows “it cannot be an anthropocentric marker”
  • Relational perspectives, Robot Rights, environmental ethics: Josh Gellers, David Gunkel, Mark Coeckleburgh “none of those arguments give any rationale for excluding any sentient beings from our consideration” “I’m much more worried about excluding sentient beings than I am about including insentient beings”
  • Recognising dissonance as a first step. Banking the theoretical commitment to sentiocentric compassion even if practice hasn’t yet been brought in line
  • Harnessing empathy and kinship “we are all cousins”
  • Seeing others as resources
  • “Just because we are here I feel like there should be some protection… just pause on destruction… learn more about how we are co-dependent”
  • “Flip the script – assume that all beings… have some protective capacity… some capacity to sense harm and protect against it”
  • The caveats when most humans grant some protection “we like dogs but we’ll still experiment on them”
  • Artificial sentients?
  • “From a legal perspective… beings that exist deserve a conversation about what protections are appropriate… I don’t have to care about what capacities they have”
  • “When we talk about what protections, that’s when the capacities can come back in… that sets up a prioritisation”

01:12:28 A Better Future?

  • “Seeing animals as beings…” in education, science, law
  • “More science and better science”… scientists recognising their own implicit assumptions and biases
  • “Education… teaching… it keeps me hopeful” Lifelong learning
  • Sentience being recognised in law (e.g. EU / UK) … but how much does that help animals if the response is “we must find more humane ways of killing”? Getting to enforcement that practically helps the vulnerable
  • Showing that claims of “humane” farming are false – using facts
  • The GWU Law & Science project (with another Sentientism guest Dr. Lori Marino) helping people to more effectively use science with the law
  • Creating the Aquatic Animal Law Initiative to “lift up this whole segment of the animal world.” Trillions vs. the billions of land animals exploited… “Killing animals to feed to other animals to feed to us”
  • “We haven’t figured out… how to stop exploiting beings” (human and non-human)
  • “It’s not going to be a linear progression”
  • You might be on a journey “but there are times when the law is not going to wait for you”
  • “We’re going to tell you what is the floor and you can’t go below… you can’t kick the dog”
  • There are places that haven’t adopted an exploitative, capitalist approach.

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Denise for funding this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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