"With great power comes great responsibility" - Elan Abrell - Anthropologist & Author - Sentientism Episode 154
Elan Abrell is a cultural anthropologist and author of "Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care". A conversation about Sentientism's "evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings".
Criticism, suggestions, offers of help and amplification / sharing are always welcome. Thanks so much for all the help so far and to those who’ve been doing their own things to develop our collective Sentientism project – working to normalise “evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings”. A special thanks to Denise and Tarabella who have found our Patreon page and are contributing to our production costs.
The numbers below should give some indication of how many of the remaining ~7.7 billion humans (let alone the powerful AIs) we have yet to persuade 😊. As ever, you and friends are very welcome in any of our online groups. They’re open to anyone interested, not just sentients who have a Sentientist worldview:
Sentientism Podcast: 41k downloads, 50 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5-star ratings and appearances in the philosophy podcast charts of ~34 countries (often still way behind Russell Brand and Deepak Chopra ☹)
Suspected Celebrity Sentientists (including many of you!) – added Kate Nash, Max Tegmark, Douglas Hofstadter, Brian Greene, Otep Shamaya, Nicky Campbell, Sara Pascoe, Tania Lombrozo (future guest) – 224.
Peter is often referred to as the “world’s most influential living philosopher.” He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He specialises in applied ethics, approaching the subject from a secular, naturalistic, utilitarian perspective. He wrote the books "Animal Liberation", Why Vegan? and "Animal Liberation Now!" (launched on the same day as our Sentientism episode - join his speaking tour here!), in which he argues against speciesism and for a shift to plant-based food systems and veganism. He also wrote the essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" and the books "The Life You Can Save" & "The Most Good You Can Do" which argue for effective altruism - using evidence & reasoning to do the most good we can for all sentient beings both human and not.
In 2004 Peter was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. In 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald placed him among Australia's ten most influential public intellectuals. Singer is a cofounder of Animals Australia & the founder of The Life You Can Save. In 2021 he received the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. Peter donated the $1 million prize money to the most effective organizations working to assist people in extreme poverty and to reduce the suffering of animals in factory farms.
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
Non-religious Jewish parents "they came to Australia as refugees from the Nazis, leaving Austria"
Mother "a fervent agnostic… there isn't reason to believe in a god or a supernatural being or life after death"
"In some parts of the United States it's almost necessary to belong to a religion to have a community"
Rabbi cousin in Mobile, Alabama "When I say god I mean whatever it is in the universe that is a force for good… (e.g. some human beings)"
"I kind of thought of them as fairy stories"
Childhood meeting with Catholic kids "don't ask him any more questions - he'll only blacken his soul & go to hell… I wasn't in the least frightened"
Good aspects of religions: "they tend to promote charity to the poor" (zakat, tithing)
Negative aspects of religions: Religious wars & "very often a conservative force against what I see as progressive reforms"
"If there were no religious teachings against #abortion I don't think the US would be divided over the issue"
Voluntary assisted dying "fortunately that legislation is spreading"
Why religious organisations get social licence to continue #sexism , #homophobia , #transphobia
"[Religious] teachings about sex which have been a very negative influence… making people feel guilty"
"The highest rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies in the US is precisely in the most religous parts"… rejecting contraception ("that would be sinful" - sex outside of marriage), getting pregnant, then facing abortion prohibitions
#Descartes was a sentiocentrist (but thought only "ensouled" humans can suffer). That's why you need naturalism too!
"I think consequences matter" #consequentialism & #utilitarianism
"Perhaps you want to embrace people who are religious & who are sympathetic towards animals & bring them towards #sentientism ?" The work of Andrew Linzey, Charles Camosy, David Clough
#Sentiocentrism vs. #Sentientism as #Anthropocentrism vs. #Humanism
"I totally agree with you about the value of evidence & reason"… #effectivealtruism
Religious effective altruists use evidence & reasoning but "would leave evidence & reason at the door for some of their specifically religious beliefs"
JW: "If we acknowledge the validity of unfounded beliefs in some domains it can make it a little harder to push back on them in domains where we're really worried about the effects"
Postmodernism & standpoint epistemology
“I was certainly very hard on Christianity… Aquinas said… we do not have any direct duties to them [animals] because they do not have souls and are not made in the image of god” [in the 1975 Animal Liberation]. “I’ve taken a slightly softer line in Animal Liberation Now!”
26:25 What Matters?
Working with Peter’s father: honesty & reputation “In the long run it would have good consequences”
“Brought up with a sense of not inflicting suffering on sentient beings… although we were big meat eaters”
Being invited to go fishing with friends. Father: “Do you really want to catch these fish up and wash them slowly die in the air?”
“There was definitely a concern for non-human animals but not to the extend of enquiring too much about how they were reared & killed”
The badness of suffering vs. nihilism, relativism
Reading Bertrand Russell “Within humans he was clearly… concerned with minimising suffering and maximising happiness”
Criticisms of utilitarianism: JW: “A disconnection from the individuals concerned… containers of utility… replacement, aggregation, offsetting”?
“We do have to aggregate… but I don’t think that should prevent us from empathy with individuals”
“Utilitarianism does accept that sometimes you have to allow or even cause suffering to one person to prevent more suffering to others… but the idea that we don’t then have empathy for the people who suffer”
“…Utility is a liquid that we pour into more containers… that seems to me to be wrong… suffering & happiness always are instantiated in one sentient being… no such thing as pleasure & pain floating around the universe unattached to a sentient being.”
“Offset“ suffering still exists!
Some effective altruists “but why does it follow that I should be vegan… maybe it would be more effective… to give to an effective charity fighting for animals?”… “Well why not do both?”
Going vegan “not only reduces demand for meat… but it sets an example & it makes it more likely others will… as in fact I did by having lunch with one.”
Testing people’s animal ethics by applying them to human animals
38:58 Who Matters?
“Those initial seeds [of compassion for non-human sentients]… failed to germinate for a very long time… I’m not at all proud of that”
“I became a vegetarian after accidentally having lunch with a vegetarian… I was 24 at the time… I had never had a serious conversation with a vegetarian about why they were vegetarian”
“I don’t know that I’d even met a vegetarian… for young people today that is unthinkable… there are vegetarians everywhere… vegetarian options on the menu…”
“I was already studying ethics… I should have questioned the boundaries of moral concern many years earlier”
“It was a bit of a shock… I’d never seriously enquired into what animals are going through to be turned into meat.”
“I assumed the animals I was eating had generally had a reasonably natural, tranquil, protected life and then had one bad day”
“Eating meat every day… & not really enquiring what happens to the animals… looking back on it now it’s shocking but… it was the default”
Philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics: “There’s a long history of humans believing what’s convenient for them to believe” e.g. Jefferson and US enslavement
“We find it convenient… we don’t want to go against social norms…”
The “future generations will condemn us (but I’m still not going to change)”
Using reason & evidence to attribute sentience “it’s changing right now” e.g. UK legislation extending sentience attribution to invertebrate cephalopods (e.g. octopuses) & decapods (e.g. lobsters & crabs) based on Jonathan Birch’s LSE ASENT research
Bivalves, insects, even plant sentience? “I’ve taken the possibility of plant sentience more seriously in the new edition… I’m still guessing not because there isn’t a brain or a central nervous system… but I’m less certain”
Philosophy of mind: illusionism, panpsychism…
“I’ve not gone deeply into panpsychism… I see no reason for believing that electrons or quarks could be sentient”
“A reasonably complex organism… some kind of brain & nerve centres… the more complex it is the more likely it is that there’s sentience… correlates with more complex behaviours”
Insects: “Such a huge variety… it seems very unlikely the answer is yes or no” e.g. bees vs. mealworms
Previous guest Luke Roelofs - Could “micro-conscious” entities be insentient (no perceptions, sensations, thoughts…) – only “macro-conscious” entities are
The first uses of the word “Sentientism” by Rodman & Lewis to criticise sentiocentrism as another form of human discrimination
Biocentrism & ecocentrism. Arne Naess. “There are a lot of people who want to find intrinsic value in nature… I am somewhat uncomfortable… I really enjoy being in nature…”
The ethereal experience of walking in an ancient forest with family “It somehow strikes me that it would be a kind of vandalism to chop it down”
Wouldn’t a consistent ecocentrist care about a lifeless/sentientless planet as much as ours?
When environmentalism’s disregard for non-human sentients exposes underlying anthropocentrism
The environmental impact (emissions, pollution, energy, land use) of animal agriculture “environmental groups are now serving more vegan food when you go to their events”
“It’s a wasteful system because we have to grow so many crops to feed to these animals… and we get back… maybe 10%”
Considering agency, dignity as other characteristics beyond sentience?
“This idea that there’s some special dignity about human beings… that does not apply to any non-human animals - is really groundless”
“Some animals have agency in ways that some humans don’t”
Agency as a basis for blame, punishment, praise, encouragement “that works with those who are agents and especially with agents with whom we can communicate”
Agency “is relevant in that sense… but it’s a different question… from does this being have intrinsic value… and I don’t think you need agency for that… our own infants… it’s clear they don’t have agency – but does that mean that their suffering doesn’t matter?”
Future guest Nicolas Delon re: agency as a way of extending moral consideration beyond sentience
01:10:05 How Can We Make A Better Future?
The “Animal Liberation Now!” clarion call re: rejecting speciesism, recognising equal consideration of like interests, for “liberation” vs. ideas of “humane killing”, “conscientious omnivorism”, focusing on factory farming & suffering reduction
JW: The risk of an end state “where we’ve actually got a larger animal agriculture system… where more animals are being killed & exploited & imprisoned… but we’ve found some way to re-brand these exercises as humane, high-welfare, sustainable… and on we go!”
“My clarion call is really clear against suffering & exploitation – it’s not so clear… about death”
“Sometimes it’s good for someone to die… when for example they’re suffering & their suffering can’t be alleviated… With humans… we would generally ask for their consent… but parents should sometimes be able to make that choice on behalf of their child (euthanasia for profoundly disabled infants)”
Compassionate euthanasia without consent for non-humans (e.g. companion animals)
Free-ranging hens living happy lives: “Is it a bad thing to have hens who live for a certain number of years and are then killed? – I find that a difficult philosophical question…”
A positive life on condition you are killed vs. not existing at all?
Derek Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” & population ethics
“I’m genuinely uncertain about those arguments in respect of issues about humans and I’m therefore equally uncertain about them in respect to non-human animals”
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go”
JW: “As soon as we have created it (them), I think we then have a moral obligation to that being as a moral patient which means that to kill them against their interests… their interests in continuing to live… is just a wrong thing… regardless of whatever deal we’ve done with ourselves in advance”
“But then of course we won’t have any more chickens” JW: “I’m totally comfortable with that… The chicken that doesn’t exist isn’t a sentient being so isn’t a moral patient so cannot be harmed.”
“We do have a genuine disagreement… I’m much more ambivalent on that question than you are”
Peter’s “One World” book re: global governance
“We have to try everything… using evidence & reason”
Peter’s study with Eric Schwitzgebel – student meal choices were affected by exposure to animal ethics
Alternative proteins at scale; plant-based or cellular
Campaigning for improved farmed animal conditions: “the evidence suggests that those countries that have the best animal welfare standards… also have the highest rates of vegan & vegetarian living… it will increase the price of meat… that will make it easier for these alternatives to compete with meat.”
Re-writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the SDGs from a Sentientist perspective: A Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights?
“We do need stronger global institutions… we seem to have moved away from stronger global institutions”
Effective Altruism: doing the most good possible using evidence & reason
Challenges to effective altruism (beyond do-gooder derogation): disconnection from the individual, demandingness & maximisation risks, ends/means, unintended consequences, neo-liberal / tech solution / NGO bias vs. state / democratic, corporatisation of philanthropy, eurocentrism, welfarism, the book “The Good It Promises, The Harm It Does”…?
“A lot of those challenges are based on misunderstandings of the movement… I think it’s very open to what is the best thing to do”
“They’re very open people – and if somebody comes out with a hypothesis… they will certainly look at that”
Poverty: “Just to say it’s global capitalism seems to me very simplistic – there’s been poverty long before there was global capitalism and there’s poverty in places where they’re not very much affected by global capitalism… and I haven’t seen anybody give any good accounts for how they’re going to get rid of global capitalism… but if somebody does come up with a plan… effective altruists will be very open to that.”
Europe/US/Global North/West: “That’s where a lot of the resources are… a lot of people that can help others in need. The largest numbers of people in extreme poverty are in the ‘south’”
“The groups that are supported by effective altruism don’t just march in to communities and say ‘this is what you need’… some of them, for example GiveDirectly, don’t even want to tell them how to spend them money… they want to increase their money” JW: “Trusting the people you’re trying to help”
“I reject the idea that this is… ‘a white saviour complex’… you ask the people in these impoverished villages whether they would like to have assistance and they say ‘yes’. If they didn’t say ‘yes’ then you wouldn’t do it.”
“I’ve met some truly wonderful people through effective altruism… they are both altruistic and often very thoughtful… it’s inspiring… donating money or time… donating a kidney to complete strangers!”
“During COVID it was effective altruists (One Day Sooner) who organised the volunteers for human challenge trials… if we get a vaccine one day sooner it will save lives… they were prepared to be infected with COVID… then they would get a candidate vaccine… in order to speed up vaccine development… There was a surprising amount of reluctance to… accept what they were asking to do for the world”
“It’s clear that philosophy can change the world”
People making positive changes after reading Animal Liberation & The Life You Can Save
Michael is head of philosophy at the University of Liverpool. His current work spans transhumanism, death and meaning. He has written on whether non-human animals can have meaningful lives and What It Is Like to Be a Bot. He says of his work: “As a philosopher, I am a generalist, which is a nice way of saying that I have done many different things and I am not really an expert on anything in particular. Most people would probably tag me as an ethicist, but this is only true in a very broad sense. Figuring out what is right and what is wrong, permissible or impermissible, does not hold much interest for me. It seems to me that when people are debating these questions they are actually arguing about something else, namely who we want to be and in what kind of world we want to live. For me, doing philosophy is ultimately a sustained attempt to get to grips with this “deeply puzzling world” (to borrow an expression of Mary Midgley’s), to understand it and to understand our place in it. Philosophy is not business; it’s personal, more akin to therapy than to science. It’s about finding out what is actually going on and what we are doing here. Can philosophy provide an answer to these questions? I don’t know. All we can do is keep on trying. Perhaps what matters is not that we find an answer, but that we keep the question alive.”
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
What it means to be human, to live a good life, a meaningful life
Transhumanism & human enhancement
Meaning & life & death
When dealing with foundational, broad questions: "It is very difficult to be precise… I hardly ever feel that 'now I've got it'"
06:06 What's Real?
"It's much easier to point at something & disuss whether that is real"
"If you can name something then in some sense it must be real"
Raised #Christian & sent to Sunday school & Bible classes & regular confessions to the village priest
"I sort of believed there was a god when I was little"
A god watching me "a means of controlling me… Big Brother in heaven… it was just oppressive… a punishing god, a critical god"
"I didn't feel the presence… I just believed that there was something because I was told there was something"
"Very quickly I dropped my religious beliefs… as soon as I started to think for myself I became an #atheist"
"It just faded away… it was always superficial"
"Some people take me for a Christian because I share some of the intuitions religious believers have"
"I'm not entirely comfortable with calling myself a naturalist although I don't believe in anything supernatural"
"Naturalism is also very programmatic & ideological"
"There are a lot of things in this world that we cannot understand…& some naturalists are very confident that we can understand everything & that's there's no mystery… there is a lot of mystery."
Max More's #transhumanism … pits science vs. religion
Origins of the universe & life & consciousness "we don't know!" Science might figure it out - it might not
"… whatever there is is part of nature"
Over-confidence vs. humility
The subjective & the objective
Plato & Parmenides: "being is more real than becoming"… "but we live in a world of becoming… how can that be less real?"
The "normative use of reality"… to "declare something else as not real… a term to deny something else its reality"
The denial of animal suffering "not so common any more" & the #cartesian model
"If you see an animal in pain you know it is in pain… it takes a lot of willful blindness not to acknowledge…"
"One of the reasons… why animals could not possibly feel any pain… because it would then be far too horrible how we treat animals… god wouldn't allow it!"
"If we assume the world is good & we see all the apparent suffering… then it cannot be… A moral reason behind denying the suffering of animals"
JW "An echo of a religious mode of thought that's then re-built in a humanist mode of thought"
"If we have evolved naturally… there's no reason to assume our brains are capable of understanding the universe… what possible use can it have?"
"A naturalistic perspective should actually teach us humility"
29:03 What Matters?
"I don't think that my early Christian upbringing has shaped my morals ideas & values"
"Morally I've been shaped… mostly by watching certain TV shows like Lassie & The Waltons & Little House on The Prairie… taught me what it means to do something right & something wrong… People & animals being in certain relations with each other"
"Being nice to each other… being decent… qualities that do not play a major role in ethical discussions but I think they are foundational"
Vs. #nihilism, #divinecommandtheory, #relativism, #egoism, transactional…
"I find it very difficult to align myself with a particular ethical system… #utilitarian … #Kantian … whatever… those systems highlight different aspects… that are all important"
"It's a wrong approach to say 'if we have conflicting moral intuitions one of them must be false'"
"When philosophers try to tell you that there's one right answer… I'm always suspicious."
“To think that there must be a right answer somehow assumes that we can live a perfectly good life”
Writing “Biotechnology and the integrity of life” & dignity
Bernard Rollin and the challenges to utilitarianism: When suffering reduction seems wrong (e.g. genetically engineering chickens to suffer less in factory farms)
“There seems to be something wrong in creating a living being that isn’t able to feel anything” Would enslavement be OK if we created humans that couldn’t suffer – or enjoyed being enslaved?
“Integrity… a word you use in order to capture a certain intuition… perhaps in the hope that by giving an intuition a name it becomes more real”
45:35 Who Matters?
Reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” & going vegetarian “I didn’t want to participate in practices that caused so much animal suffering”
Later “I stopped being a vegetarian so I reverted to a morality, at least in practice, that was smaller, narrower in scope than what it used to be”
“I’m a bit reluctant to reconsider the theory just to match my behaviour… people’s theories are very much influenced by what they want to be true”
The hypocrisy of adapting theory to match behaviour vs. the hypocrisy of behaviour not matching theory
“Why did I stop? The cynical answer would be that I got tired of being good… it takes so much effort… socially… it became probably too inconvenient.”
“I still believe that, obviously, animals have moral status and that animal lives matters and that animal suffering matters”
“We cannot live without killing” (e.g. crop deaths)
“It is utopian to think we could all live peacefully together without hurting each other… that does not mean you cannot reduce the suffering that you cause… I don’t really have a justification for why I’m not doing that more than I’m currently doing”
Ivory tower vs. activist vs. ordinary people philosophers
Why moral philosophers don’t seem to behave better than other humans
Ethics, morality and meaning “Defending a subjectivist conception of meaning in life”
“I don’t think meaning is an objective quality of life… but rather it is an aspect of the experience”
Meaning doesn’t have to “serve a higher purpose… or connect to some objective values”
The problems of paradigmatic cases of meaningful lives… famous people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Picasso, Einstein… people who did important things
“If that is the paradigm that you use in order to understand what a meaningful life looks like – the result is that most lives look meaningless… it seems to me this is wrong.”
“Even thought it might not be important from the perspective of the world or of society… they might just live their lives… no one takes any notice of it… they will be completely forgotten… but that doesn’t mean they don’t live meaningful lives”
You don’t have to do “important things” to have a meaningful life
“Many people just live ordinary lives… that does not mean their lives are not meaningful… there are things in those lives that they follow with interest… that are important to them”
“Meaning being subjective… a quality of our experience”
“I just don’t get the notion of objective value”… things mattering to us is enough
“The very notion of objective value appears obscure to me… I don’t understand what it means to say that something is valuable if nobody values it!”
“Value that isn’t realised by anyone”?
“Things matter if they matter to someone”
Michael’s “Living Like A Dog” paper
William James’ “On a certain blindness in human beings” “We have to assume that there’s always more to the experience of someone that is different from ourselves than we can possibly understand… because the other is the other”
“It seems to me the same is the case with animals… it’s not even that difficult”
“Many philosophers… their theories clearly exclude animals from having meaningful lives… very anthropocentric… you have to do things like art or philosophy in order to have a meaningful life… not just eat and drink and sleep… what we share with other animals is not what makes our life meaningful… what goes beyond the animal… what surpasses the animal in us”
“To say that non-human animals do not have meaningful lives… we judge their lives as not worth living”
“In reality we very much associate a meaningless life with a life not worth living… or that has a very reduced value”
“A live that is meaningless… is not worth protecting… is not worth any moral consideration”
Michael’s dog companion “Whatever she does there is interest there… you can see that clearly her life… is meaningful for her in the sense of being significant”
“We have this idea that only human lives are truly worth living”
A transhumanist take on animal rights
Previous guest and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association David Pearce
Human enhancement would “leave behind” non-human animals so “we also have an obligation to uplift animals to a human status and beyond… because the life of a non-human animal is ‘bad’ because it is the life of an animal… even the best animal life… is a bad life… they cannot do art, philosophy, politics…”
“For me that is so weird because it assumes that our lives are the best lives”
John Stuart Mill’s “Better to be an unhappy Socrates than an happy pig”… “what’s wrong with happy pigs?… for a pig to be a happy pig is the best you can ever be… It’s not the case that the pig would be better off if they were a human.”
The risks of transhumanist elitism even within the human species
Would re-engineering animals (human or not) so we cannot suffer be a good thing?
Eradicating or herbivorising predators?
“Again there is this unease about it… does the suffering also have a value?… what gets lost if we cannot suffer any more?”
“What happens to love?… If I cannot suffer when something bad happens to the one I love… I cannot suffer from the loss of the one I love… If I am indifferent… How can I say I love them?”
“If you remove suffering a lot of other things will also change… you cannot just isolate one thing and take it out… it will all be affected.”
“Even the word wrong seems wrong to me”… “Just because we cannot articulate it [what might be lost] with sufficient clarity doesn’t mean it isn’t there…”
The naturalistic fallacy: “I wouldn’t want to say that just because it’s natural it’s good but in natural things… there is horror… but there is also a lot of beauty… predators are beautiful too and that beauty should count for something”
Plotinus “beauty is the shine of the good”
“The beauty of the world is important… an indication of what is worth protecting”
Humility vs. “to think you can redesign the world… to create a world in which no one suffers… there’s no humility in there”
“Some who pursue those goals would deny precisely that [humility]”
John Harris: “Humility is not a virtue… you should be proud and ambitious”
“I don’t think there is an overall referee that could actually make the ultimate decision about who is right and who is wrong… it’s about us making certain decisions… creating the kind of world and also preserving the kind of world that we want to have”
01:26:44 How Can We Make a Better Future?
“My hope is somehow that we become more caring & less ideological & less self-destructive”
Politics: Brexit “and the willingness to commit economic suicide… the anti-immigration impulse”
“After 4 years of Trump being president more than 70 million Americans still want to have him again… should govern… one should emulate… the lack of decency”
“He’s the opposite of decency – he’s pure nastiness… that nastiness is not only being tolerated but admired and approved of… and he is just the tip of the iceberg”
Putin’s attack on Ukraine “It defies any reason”
“It’s not only that people are irrational… they seem to positively delight in destruction and chaos…"
“I’m a bit disillusioned… I assumed somehow that people are reasonable… to find a compromise… to get along with each other.”
“But the fact is we are a horrible species… we do things just for the sake of destruction and chaos”
“I only see it getting worse and worse – I’m quite pessimistic at the moment.”
JW “Philosophy can play an important role… but it can’t be disconnected… it has to be plugged into a realistic understanding of human psychology and social norms and political will”
Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.