We frequently see it stated that the individuals whose lives, bodies, and reproductive systems we use, are sentient. So what actually is sentience?
Human animals and the vast majority of other animal species that our species uses, harms and kills, usually without thought, conscience or most importantly, any necessity whatsoever, share the quality of sentience.
Although almost everyone who has shared time with a cat, a dog, a horse, a rabbit or any species of companion has instinctively recognised the fact that other animals clearly have feelings, thoughts, preferences and emotions, scientific acceptance of their sentience was formally acknowledged on 7 July 2012 and enshrined in the landmark Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness by a prominent international group of scientists.
A sentient being is a creature that can suffer and feel pain. Such an individual is defined as having the faculty of sensation and the power to perceive, reason and think. Sentient individuals are self aware; which means that each is aware of themselves as a separate individual with thoughts, feelings and desires. They have minds. They feel.
Sentient individuals have an interest in avoiding pain and in remaining alive. They experience life and living through their senses, and through their connections to their environment and to others. They have needs and preferences, are capable of joy, of experiencing satisfaction, of devotion to their offspring, of forming deep bonds with other beings and indeed are capable of experiencing suffering and misery.
At a deep level we all know this. We witness it daily in our interactions with those whom we treat as companions. We welcome, respond and relate to their unique personality traits and the shared understanding we have with them.
Is this anthropomorphism?
Asked to acknowledge the clear evidence of the misery we inflict on our victims, those who resort mockingly to calls of ‘anthropomorphism’ don’t do so about those situations that we can all relate to, such as comforting what we perceive clearly to be the fear, pain or anxiety of a dying companion in a vet’s surgery; or even while we are seeking to justify using a member of another species in some supportive (hearing, seeing etc) role for a human.
Those who seek to ridicule the notion that the reactions of others may relate broadly to the reactions of humans to the same situation, do so only as a defence against the idea that our shared sentience gives us the common ground to interpret that reaction – and stop causing it. Fear is fear and we recognise it in others. Pain is pain and we recognise it in others. Panic is panic and we recognise it in others. Once again science is breaking ground that leads inescapably to the conclusions that the true nature of the response of a member of a species other than our own, is just as likely to be underestimated as overestimated. As with any area where new understanding is emerging, it seems that in the absence of any necessity for our actions, erring on the safe side is the moral course.
Making the connections
Scientific knowledge about our fellow earthlings advances from day to day, with new findings gaining publicity, frequently in sensationalised astonishment, as we discover that yet another species is capable of so much more than we ever could have imagined. The abilities, the senses, the psychological and perceptual depths of those whom we have been encouraged to think of as nothing more than things, as one small step removed from inanimate objects like rocks, so frequently far exceed our own.
We have been indoctrinated from infancy into the myth of our species as the most important on the planet, and so it is frequently the case that we gather these discoveries and findings as fascinating snippets, ‘good to know for the pub quiz’, while frequently failing utterly to make the connections that we could and indeed should be making if we were half as smart and important as we like to think we are.
What connections? Namely that, as these sentient beings who do not share our species are so very much like ourselves, why on earth do we continue to ‘farm‘ them, to harm them, to persecute and torment them, to exploit every aspect of the pitiful existences that we force them to endure to serve our trivial and completely unnecessary interests?
We see this absolute absence of connection being enacted in the form of a current public outcry about the intention to drop the recognition of sentience from UK legislation. If those who are so outraged actually recognise the sentience of their victims, what on earth is their justification for the senseless harm that is behind every single nonvegan choice that they make, of clothing, of food, of toiletries, of entertainment? The connections simply aren’t being made.
My thoughts have led me to conclude that there are many reasons for this, but not the least of these is the global, multi-billion, media-fuelled culture of animal victimisation and use into which we are all born and skillfully brainwashed.
Using nothing more than common sense, my mantra has become ‘follow the money’, and it has never failed me. Who stands to lose most if we attain real understanding about the implications of the sentience of our unnecessary victims? Who has the greatest investment in ensuring that the word ‘sentience’, like the words ‘welfare‘ and ‘humane‘, remains simply a word that we nod to in passing without real understanding? Who indeed.
If we hope for a peaceful world, we must do more than just say empty words. We must work for that peaceful world by living consistently true to the values that we all say that we hold. We will achieve that by rejecting our part as consumers whose demands necessitate a bloodbath and becoming vegan. Our only regret will be that it took us so long.