Frequently Asked Questions About Sentientism

What is Sentientism?

In a sentence, sentientism is “Evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings”. Sentientism is a worldview or philosophy – a way of thinking about what to believe in and who to care about. It is committed to using evidence and reason and grants moral consideration to all sentient beings. You can find out more in the rest of this FAQ or here.

What is sentience?

Sentience is the capacity to have experiences. It can be seen as synonymous with consciousness or as a component of consciousness. Negative experience can be called suffering and positive experience can be called flourishing or well-being. Suffering and flourishing can take many forms, from physical pains and pleasures through to hopes and fears, existential angst and love. There may be varieties of sentient experience we cannot yet imagine. There are more useful resources on Sentience here.

Why should we use sentience in deciding what beings to care about morally?

Morality is about assessing whether intentions, decisions and actions are good or bad. We can separate good/bad intentions and actions from good/bad moral outcomes, but ultimately both are best assessed by considering the perspectives of the sentient beings affected. In that sense, moral negatives (bad) can be grounded in suffering and death (the end of sentient experience) whereas moral positives (good) can be grounded in a flourishing life (things that are positive from the perspective of the sentient being). Sentientism says that, given this is the case, any being capable of suffering or flourishing should be given moral consideration. All suffering and flourishing should matter and all sentient beings should matter.

Why focus on sentience and not consciousness?

Sentience and consciousness are similar, overlapping concepts in that both centre awareness and experiencing. However, Consciousness is sometimes defined as including additional capabilities beyond basic sentience such as creative thinking, forward planning, intelligence or sapience. Sentientism cares morally about the suffering, flourishing, perspectives and interests of all sentient beings whether or not they have these additional capabilities. Sentience may also help us remain neutral on philosophy of mind. Whatever the ultimate nature of consciousness (physicalism, idealism, panpsychism, functionalism, illusionism…) the perspectives of sentient beings still matter to them so should matter to us. 

Which beings are sentient and which aren’t?

In short, human and non-human animals. Sentientism doesn’t define which beings are sentient, it just says we should follow the science. That science will always be provisional and our assessment of sentience will be probabilistic, so many sentientists give the benefit of the doubt where sentience is unclear. Current science has a high degree of confidence that non-living things (rocks, rivers), plants and some of the very simplest animals (e.g. sea sponges) are not sentient. Plants can exhibit complex behaviours and even communications, but don’t appear have the information processing architecture required for sentience. It is conceivable that we might create or encounter other types of being, such as alien or artificial intelligences, that could be sentient. Sentientism would also grant them moral consideration.

Why should we commit to evidence and reason (naturalism)?

Evidence is information about reality. If we want our beliefs to correspond more closely with reality, we should base them on evidence and reasoning about that evidence. Given the ever-changing, but always limited sensory and reasoning tools we have available, our evidence will always be provisional so our beliefs should be probabilistic and open to revision. That means we’re never completely right, but we’re generally, haltingly, getting less wrong. The primary alternatives to this naturalistic epistemology include fideism (faith), dogmatism (unchanging beliefs) or revelation. These ways of thinking are often used to justify supernatural beliefs not well supported by evidence or reasoning. This means they are likely to be untrue and fabricated. The histories of these fabrications are often fairly transparent. Supernatural beliefs developed in these ways are also largely arbitrary, in that they don’t correspond to the real world. There are a functionally infinite number of beliefs for which there is no good evidence – so the choice of which to believe is arbitrary. Some supernatural beliefs don’t have directly harmful effects but many of them do – leading to poor decisions and often discriminatory, harmful ethical systems.

Is this a cult?

Er… no :). If anything, it’s an anti-cult. Cults enforce dogmatic, unchallengable beliefs whereas sentientism is committed to using evidence and reason to form probabilistic, provisional beliefs that are always open to new evidence and critical thinking. Cult organisations tend to be autocratic in nature with strict boundaries and penalties for disagreeing or leaving. Large, old or socially accepted cults sometimes come to be called religions – although many religions don’t have cult characteristics. In contrast, Sentientism is a worldview, not an organisation. There is nothing to join or leave. If you’re committed to evidence, reason and grant moral consideration to all sentient beings – you’re a sentientist. If you’re not, you’re not. People can join our various online communities – but those are open to anyone interested, not just sentientists.

Why does Sentientism have to be explicitly non-religious and supernatural? Doesn’t that exclude some people who also have compassion for all sentient beings?

Sentientists welcome broad compassion whether it’s motivated by supernatural beliefs or not. Many religions are deeply compassionate and some extend this compassion to all humans and to non-human sentient beings (The Animal Interfaith Alliance has many examples). Some are sentiocentric – a broader term that means granting moral consideration to all sentient beings. Sentientism adds an important naturalistic stance that is both a more solid ethical grounding, and corresponds more closely to reality, than a supernatural or religious worldview. People with religious or supernatural beliefs are sentient too – they deserve just the same compassion as any human.

Is Sentientist ethics care, consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological or virtue based?

Sentientism is neutral on these choices of ethical system. It is a deliberately simple moral “platform” that combines naturalistic epistemology and a sentiocentric moral scope, but remains open on most other philosophical questions. A sentientist utilitarian or consequentialist might focus on suffering/flourishing consequences, a sentientist deontologist might apply rules about avoiding harm or death to sentient beings as “ends” and granting them rights, a sentientist virtue ethicist might apply virtues of kindness and compassion to sentient beings and a sentientist care ethic might emphasise our duty of care to all sentients.

Where did Sentientism come from?

The naturalistic and moral roots of sentientism pre-date humanity. Even the earliest life-forms used rudimental forms of evidence and reason in engaging with the world – finding energy and avoiding threats. Later, they evolved to be able to form internal models of the world and themselves. That capability, including the rudimentary sense of “how am I doing now?” that was likely the origin of sentience, helped them to learn, survive, reproduce and evolve further. A basic co-operative morality of sorts also evolved at a very early stage as entities that worked collaboratively at various levels of organisation were successful in surviving, reproducing then evolving further. More advanced compassionate morality developed in early animals – through reciprocity and kin / group relationships.
Within human thought, naturalistic and sentiocentric philosophies have deep roots in many regions and cultures – largely pre-dating modern religions and influencing some of them. These themes can be found in African, Asian and ancient Greek thinking, for example. Some of these historic figures can be found on our “Suspected Sentientists” page, alongside more modern rational, compassionate people.

What is the history of the word “Sentientism”?

The term Sentientism itself was coined in the 1970s. The first formal use of the term I know of so far is in a 1975 paper by Joseph L. Lewis called “Homo Sapienism: Critique of Roe v. Wade and Abortion“. The central thrust of the paper pushes back on the Roe v. Wade abortion decision by insisting that the homo sapiens species designation should apply regardless of sentience. The term “intelligent sentientism” is used to refer to the possibility of extending “homo sapienism” to other forms of intelligent life including genetically engineered or future evolved humans, “restored undermen” and even intelligent aliens. Sentient non-human animals are not considered.

More appropriately, the term was then used in a derogatory sense by John Rodman to describe the anti-speciesist work of philosophers like Brigid Brophy, Ros and Stan Godlovitch, Peter Singer and Richard Ryder. Rodman criticised their sentience-based morality as discriminatory against non-sentient beings (it is – but for good reason!). In his 1977 paper, “The Liberation of Nature?”, Rodman casts Sentientism as an elitist, self-serving human project that arbitrarily condemns all of the non-sentient entities in wider ecosystems, including abstract collective concepts, to having purely instrumental value. He comments:

“In the end, Singer achieves ‘an expansion of our moral horizons’ just far
enough to include most animals, with special attention to those categories of
animals most appropriate for defining the human condition in the years
ahead. The rest of nature is left in a state of thinghood, having no intrinsic
worth, acquiring instrumental value only as resources for the well-being of
an elite of sentient beings. Homocentrist rationalism has widened out into
a kind of zoöcentrist sentientism.”

Brophy, Singer and Ryder described their Sentientism (whether using the term explicitly or not) from the start as a naturalistic worldview – sometimes explicitly providing a secular alternative to religious ethical systems as in this 1991 paper by Ryder. Many in the animal ethics movements have used the terms Sentientism and sentiocentrism interchangeably, often because of an implicitly assumed naturalistic worldview, at least when it came to determining moral considerability.

In recent years, I have suggested we re-cast Sentientism in two ways. First, as a more broadly naturalistic worldview that applies evidence and reason in all domains – not just when determining sentience or moral consideration. Second, as a pluralistic philosophical platform that specifies naturalistic epistemology and sentiocentrism but remains neutral beyond those commitments. This platform approach is consistent with, but more neutral than both Singer’s explicitly utilitarian philosophy and Ryder’s later Painism, an approach that weights suffering more strongly and proposes an alternative to rights and utilitarian approaches. This re-casting would leave the term “sentiocentrism” to apply to the granting of moral consideration to all sentient beings while using “Sentientism” to describe an explicitly naturalistic worldview that grants the same moral consideration.

Many thanks to Josh Milburn for his help on tracking down some of the references above. All errors remain my own!

Why have compassion for all sentient beings – what about those that are evil or cause suffering or death?

Having compassion for a being doesn’t mean we condone their actions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t constrain, harm or even kill them if doing so has a sufficiently strong moral justification.
The only aspect of justice undermined by having universal compassion is retribution – the wish to cause harm to a moral agent simply because they’ve done wrong so “deserve it” – not because the punishment will have any positive effect.
Compassionate or sentientist justice might instead focus on restoration, rehabilitation, deterrence, education, prevention and protection. Justice that aims to reduce future suffering and enhance future flourishing – not just punishing for punishments’s sake.

Does Sentientism insist that all sentient beings should be given equal moral consideration? Would a Sentientist save a chicken or a human from a burning building?

Sentientism states that all sentient beings should be granted meaningful moral consideration such that we wouldn’t needlessly exploit, harm or kill them. However, it doesn’t specify that consideration has to be equal. It also remains neutral on which sort of moral approach (e.g. feminist care, utility, deontology, rights, virtue, consequences) should be used to balance or decide between competing interests.
Some sentientists do suggest we should grant equal moral consideration. They argue that even if some sentients have a simpler sentient experience than others, even that sentience could be just as visceral and important to that being. They also argue that more complex sentients, like humans, have cognitive capabilities not available to simpler sentients, that can help us to mitigate our suffering. We might understand the reasons for our negative experiences or be able to reduce our suffering through meditation, medication or distraction.
Other sentientists are comfortable granting different degrees of moral consideration to different sentients based on their estimated degrees of sentience or differences in their interests or capabilities. However, even minimally sentient beings warrant a meaningful level of moral consideration. 

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