Should non-sentient agents matter too? – Philosopher Nicolas Delon – Sentientism Ep:159

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

Nicolas is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the New College of Florida. In Fall 2023, he will join the College of Charleston as Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

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

01:55 Nico’s Intro

– Philosophy PhD in France (the moral status of animals – a #relational theory)

– PostDoc at NYU

– Chicago Uni Law School w/ #MarthaNussbaum

– Asst. Prof  New College of Florida 

– #Vegan, dad, runner

03:17 What’s Real?

– “I’m a pretty strong naturalist”

– A non-religious family – #protestant parents “a minority in France & in Belgium”

– Religion classes in Belgium: Segregated into #Catholic, Protestant & “the others”

– Father’s ethos: “Self discipline, a sense of integrity… and he hated the Pope… but he didn’t really believe in god… some higher order of things that he was not sure about… an #agnostic  more than a #theist “

– No particular revelation, but didn’t believe in god after 12-13 yrs old

– “A strong distrust of religious authorities”

– Studying philosophy, drawn to #spinoza  and #nietzsche

– “Nietzsche has really stuck with me”

– As a pre-teen “I remember thinking… nasty things about god then feeling very guilty…”

– “The world just made more sense for me without a supernatural entity that would be its creator & legislator”

– There’s so much we don’t understand… because of a strong commitment to epistemic humility… I’m not in the habit of ruling out a priori the existence of things that we think don’t fit the current worldview. That being said… I don’t believe in a god… supernatural entities… ghosts.”

– #Meditation & #psychedelics “I think there is such a thing as mystical experiences but… don’t reveal really anything that is possibly hidden from a broadly naturalistic understanding of the world”

– “The naturalistic framework makes you enquire about the world… in constant revision”

11:15 What Matters?

– “Anti-realist on many issues… I’m not a moral realist”

– “I don’t think there are real mind-independent facts about morality”

– “A Protestant integrity”

– “I grew up with #punkrock… gave rise to some of my commitments with respect to #animalrights “

– Talking about #anarchism with dad: “I disagree with them politically… but some of the most moral people I’ve ever met are anarchists”

– “Whether or not you believe in god… you can still have a commitment to right & wrong”

– “What I think I took from punk rock & in part from Nietzsche… is that people come up with their own values… and have to get along somehow.”

– “There’s room for moral talk – I wouldn’t be an ethicist otherwise”

– If anything is going to be right or wrong… it’s going to be… the result of some form of constructive/deliberative/expressive process”

– “Of course I was tempted by #nihilism” & #relativism

– Having a “robust commitment to justice” while rejecting hierarchy/authority is arguably more moral? (why dad respected anarchists)

– “Nihilism was the big worry for Nietzsche at the end of the 19th Century”

– “Some values are worth promoting but we have to think about which values… but they don’t have a bedrock that’s independent”

– Even without moral realism we have “tools to criticise other communities’ moralities”

– Descriptive vs. normative assessments

– “There are sophisticated forms of relativism that are much more reasonable”

– “One of the ironies of some forms of relativism is that most human communities are not relativistic at all… [they] think that their morality is the correct one”

– Sharon Street’s Humian non-Kantian #constructivism “it tolerates the possibility that some really different forms of rationality are possible… consistent with the basic value commitments that most of us have”

– “For the sorts of creatures that we are… born with some forms of attachments… the building blocks… things worth caring about… constructing… striving for cohesion… consistency between those different commitments”

– “You can be a moral anti-realist & at the same time have animal friendly commitments”

– Oliver Scott-Curry’s view that morality is purely about effective co-operation

– “We have a lot to learn from what people actually do… psychology… at the same time we are profoundly normative creatures.”

– “That will include… finding ways to include rather than exclude beings”

– Contractarian challenges (and their workarounds) to considering non-human animals, infants, humans with disabilities as moral patients

– “What is morality for?” evolutionarily vs. “what do we want it to do?”. They could be very different!

29:53 Who Matters?

– Being a teenager: “one of the worst times of your life… you’re not really interesting when you’re a teenager… but it’s extremely formative”

– Starting asking questions about “who matters?” fairly early on, including reluctance re: killing animals to eat them

– Hearing justifications: hunting: “we’ve done it for ever” and raising “that’s what the animals are for”

– Listening to punk including Propagandhi (vegan, left wing, anarchist band) “The first time I ever heard of Peter Singer and the very concept of animal rights”

– Moby’s “Punk Rock Vegan Movie

– Punk’s influence on previous guests Nick Pendergrast, Crystal Heath, Kristof Dhont

– At 16, asking parents permission to go vegetarian. Dad says “I think you’re right… I highly respect your choice… but you’re too young”

– Dad died 9-10 months later. “Before my 17th birthday I asked my mum… she said yes” (but some fish & dairy)

– 5-6 years of “not really thinking much about those things” then some health issues, blamed lack of meat so started eating meat again

– Wife’s law case work renewed interest in animal law / animal liberation

– Wrote master’s thesis on animal ethics (Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities theory) then PhD

– Became vegetarian again then fully vegan

– “That’s the story of the diet – and I think the views about who matters and why evolved more or less in parallel… all boils down to commitments I had when I was a teenager that resurfaced”

– “Sympathy for suffering was the big issue” and also “interfering with animals in ways that just frustrate their choices and autonomy… as someone who was attracted to anarchism and punk rock at the time”

– “Up until fairly recently I was very strongly committed that probably the only thing that really mattered was sentience”

– “I was helped by the fact that the transition was fairly gradual”

– “I’ve never felt like an oppressed minority or stigmatised [for going vegan]… I’ve been mocked… I’ve had really annoying conversations”

– “In France it has not been particularly easy… in the early 2000-10’s… France has gotten a lot better in terms of the vegan scene”

– “It fostered my creativity… that’s when I started cooking… I had a lot of fun… making meals for people”

– The positive influence of Nicolas’ social media posts/writing

– “There have been many times whether at weddings or on the plane or at conferences where I was the only one who had a different meal… a struggle to have something more than tomatoes and salad”

– “Society is structured in a way that doesn’t really accommodate”

– Moving to the USA

– Quitting alcohol (vegan straight-edge but without the purity vibe) “Society is also structured such that social norms will make you drink”

– “How analogous that is to what it means to become a vegan… I’d sort of forgotten what it was like”

– Vegan family “it’s completely natural for them… that’s how they’ve grown up… they don’t see animals as food”

– Daughter in 1st grade: school dinner options / parties are restricted “I don’t think she is being judged by her peers… she notices that she’s one of the only ones… I think that she’s fairly proud of it… she might rebel as a teenager”

– “We’re trying our best… to model what we think is the best behaviour… we cultivate positive attitudes towards animal welfare in our household”

– Papers: “Can one Singer replace another” (the replacement argument in utilitarianism), “Is suffering really bad?”

– Challenging Sentientism. Should agency grant moral consideration even without sentience?

– “Another trajectory – my shift away from Sentientism towards a more pluralistic view of moral status”

– “I still think that sentience is going to be sufficient for moral status – any sentient creature regardless of their species will have at the very least basic moral status… maybe… that makes them persons”

– Draft paper re: “Agential Value”: “Sentience can be a sufficient ground of moral status… but perhaps there are other sufficient grounds… and perhaps there are beings who are agents but not sentient. I want to make space for those beings”

– Other academics who have written re: agency: Jeff Sebo (previous guest), Nathalie Thomas, Mark Wilcox, Martha Nussbaum “agency adds something” or puts claims on us in a different perspective

– “Look at animals not just as passive creatures that can suffer but also as creatures who can do stuff”

– “But I’m still frustrated with the idea that without sentience a creature cannot have moral status – and I think there are more creatures than we think who can be agents without sentience”

– “Perhaps sentience is one way among many others that creatures can matter”

– Sentience as a contingent event in evolution “it could have gone completely otherwise and I think we should try harder to separate what can be a source of value in the universe and the role that sentience plays in the generation of value”

– Narrow agency (e.g. moral agency) vs. ubiquitous agency (an electron buzzing around the nucleus)

– Reflective or Kantian autonomy “I also reject that – I don’t think having agency [self-conscious, reflective, reasons for actions] in that sense is necessary”

– A more minimal view of agency (per Kim Sterelny, Fred Dretsky) “Goal-directed behaviour that you can explain by appealing to some reasons [desires, preferences, aims]… the way those attitudes feature in the explanation of your behaviour involves some degree of flexibility – that’s agency for me”

– Creatures with representations, beliefs, desires. “Those representations can be manipulated by the entity in a way that generates flexible behaviour.”

– Flexible learning: “You don’t just have a repertoire of behaviours that are stimulus bound”

– Excludes thermostats. “It probably excludes amoeba, probably bacteria… cells… I’m agnostic about plants and funghi… probably moving towards granting them some kind of agency… most animals, if not all of them, will be agents… arthoropods, insects, decapod crustaceans… I think it’s actually more likely that they are agents than they are sentient”

– Also more generous re: moral consideration for artificial intelligences “I’m quite open… to the idea that large language models (LLMs) will have agency… they may have agency without having sentience… they will have some kind of moral status”

– Composite entities and groups “I don’t want to rule out the idea that corporations and other collective systems that are properly unified and have cohesive behaviour over time are agents… and to the extent that their agency gives rise to some forms of interests then they have moral status”

– Corporations already have legal status

– Maybe this view re: corporations would “give much more weight to their moral responsibilities than their moral rights… if that’s the case perhaps that’s a conclusion people should welcome”

– The concept of a “welfare subject” “Having agency generates prudential value and so capacity for welfare – capacity for things to go well or badly for you”

– “It may turn out that the interests of corporations are nothing like the interests of bees or cats or pigs or human beings… saying they are members of the moral community and have moral status doesn’t mean at all that they have similar claims”

– “I think agency is a good marker of sentience – but a defeasible one”

– Evolutionary origins of agency & sentience

– Peter Godfrey-Smith (action-perception nexus), Ginsburg & Jablonka’s UAL (Unlimited Associative Learning), Walter Veit (pathological complexity – previous guest)

– “Perhaps just before sentience [pre-Cambrian?]… there was a time when perhaps most animals were already actors or agents of a sort – and things mattered to them before they had anything like sentience”

– “The most difficult claim for me to defend in the paper… the idea that you could have valence without affective experience” vs. the view that “if they are not sentient then it does not matter to them – so should not matter to us – that some of their goals are being frustrated”

– “Valence can be generated by agency without affect [feeling] – I want to tease apart the concept of valence and the concept of affective valence… so not all valence will be affective”

– “I endorse Peter Carruthers’ view of valence… as non-conceptual representation of value… even creatures that don’t have language or concepts can form representations of things that are good or bad for them… that does not require affect or hedonic valence”

– “I may end up changing my mind… and think that in fact all of the beings whose agency matters also happen to be sentient because if they cannot affectively care about what happens to them it doesn’t matter morally… but for now at least I’m trying to open up the floodgates”

– Kristen Andrews and Jonathan Birch: AI sentience research is going to need to learn from animal sentience research “but it could go the other way… perhaps we’ll learn from AI that there are… analogous forms of life… with agency but not sentience.”

– “It should worry us that… it [AI] could become agents before becoming sentient. I’m not sure you want to develop an AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) with intrinsic motivation that has no capacity for sympathy… for suffering… we may be on track to do that”

– Thomas Metzinger’s call for a moratorium vs. creating artificial sentients

– The risks of training powerful AI about animal agriculture & exploitation

– Ray Nayler’s sci-fi “The Mountain In The Sea” (and previous guest Adrian Tchaikovsky)

– “I think I’m probably a Sentientist by your book – the version of Sentientism that I reject in the paper is… the idea that sentience is necessary…”

1:15:11 Making a Better World?

– “It’s beyond my pay grade!”

– “I’m not highly confident that philosophy will change the world” hence interested in social norms

– “I don’t think that farmed animal protection… is an intractable problem… but I think approaching it in terms of what attitudes people have is not the right way to go”

– “The right attitudes will only lead to right behaviour if they are supported by social scaffolding… norms, laws & other policies”

– “Individually most of us are inefficacious or impotent with respect to animal suffering”

– “Animal suffering… one of the world’s most important problems… a moral catastrophe… our children & grandchildren will look back on with horror”

– Normalised animal consumption

– “It’s not easy but you can change social norms… use them to leverage social change… they can be a drag or they can be leveraged”

– Paper and webinar with Zoe Griffith and Courtney Dillard @ Mercy for Animals

– “It still matters to me that I am a vegan. It contributes to making my life meaningful – but I’m under no illusion that as an individual I have much effect on animal suffering”

– “Peter Singer has a lot more influence than I have”

– Teaching animal ethics “people have told me that sometimes they have changed their views… that class was a huge trigger for me… going vegan… talking to family… but most of those changes were overdetermined – they would have happened without me”

– Peter Singer & Eric Schwitzgebel’s paper showing that ethics can have an influence

– JW: “We are actually the vanguard of a new social norm…”

– Dynamic social norms… “Instead of a sense of despair…  you should signal… building up a trend”

Previous guest Eva Hamer “this is where the future is going… we’re already part of it… get on board”

– Influence in the classroom, influence on policy “there are many ways you can contribute to changing the social norms… have kids and bring them up vegan!”

– “Having a household that’s focused on certain values is your best bet to convey some values to your children”

– “There’s many ways to live… to be happy… to flourish”

– “The population explosion scare… has never materialised… the major impact is through consumption & what people eat”

– “Higher Ed in Florida is on a bad track if most of the legislation that’s being currently proposed ends up passing… academic freedom, protection of tenure, quality of education, free speech more generally”

– “[The administration] are going to have more tools to curb what I teach and how I teach… that’s worrisome”

Follow Nicolas:

Also check out Comme un Poisson Dans L’eau : “There’s a lot of super-exciting work going on in France”

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

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