by Nitesh Anchan.


How should humans treat non-human beings? In other words, what is the correct or right mode of action towards members of non-human species? The ‘how’ question, i.e. how to treat non-human beings, relies on the ‘what’ question, i.e. what ‘are’ non-human beings. The ‘what’ question is mainly focused, in this context, on the properties of non-human beings that determine the mode of ethical treatment. In this article, I will mainly focus on one aspect of non-human beings, i.e. sentience, and provide some arguments as to why sentience should be considered as an ethical property that can guide us in determining our actions towards non-human beings. Ethics in general is concerned with the question – How to act? Or What is the right mode of action? These questions arise in human beings given the reflective nature of human beings. We think before we determine our mode of action, which allows us to determine the correct way of action in a given circumstance. Thinking here involves various aspects like predicting the probable consequences of actions or adherence to certain moral principles.

Human beings have always lived in close interaction with members of other species. Some of these interactions are vital for the subsistence of human life. The major source of food for humans is obtained from other species. Hunting, food gathering, agriculture and domestication are considered some of the most important developments in the evolution of human beings. These activities also lead us to ask questions about the nature of our interaction with the members of non-human species. Ethical questions regarding non-human beings have been entertained by philosophers in most philosophical traditions including in Indian philosophy, African philosophy, Chinese philosophy, etc. Since different philosophical schools answer ethical questions according to the concepts and context of their philosophical understanding, there are many cultures with their own unique take on the question of animal ethics.

Many influential philosophers like Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, have been noted as arguing that non-human beings deserve less moral consideration when compared to human beings, or that non-human beings deserve no moral consideration at all. Philosophical arguments in this regard have mainly rested on the way human beings and non-human beings are conceptualized, i.e., the way properties or features of these beings are understood. I would like to give a brief introduction to some of the debates in animal ethics. Arguments, like those put forward by Aristotle and Kant, that there is no demand that non-human beings be treated ethically would support their claims by arguing that non-human beings do not possess any properties that demand ethical treatment. For example, Aristotle thought that there is a hierarchy of being in nature and humans are meant to use other animals for their own purposes. Animals, argued Aristotle, are incapable of reasoning. Their apparent lack of reason was evident to him from their lack of speech. To Aristotle, speech and language were considered a prerequisite for thought, and thought was necessary for reasoning. The lack of consciousness, reason, language, thought, etc. meant that non-human beings do not deserve ethical consideration.

Philosophers like Descartes and Kant would argue that non-human beings do not deserve direct ethical consideration like humans but would argue that they deserve indirect ethical considerations. For example, Kant argued that since non-human beings cannot enter into a social contract, or have the ability to respect and reciprocate the ethical acts of others, they receive no direct ethical consideration. However, we should not cause unnecessary harm or suffering to animals because it will make us more inhuman and might cause us to be violent towards other human beings. In this sense, Kant would allow for indirect moral consideration of non-human beings. But in a case where there is a conflict of interest between humans and non-humans, the interest of human beings would be considered more important than the interests of non-humans because humans are considered to have moral properties that demand greater moral consideration than the moral properties of non-humans. Philosophers like Peter Singer and Tom Reagan hold the position that humans and non-humans demand direct ethical consideration because they share certain properties. For example, if a non-human being has the property of sentience thereby implying a capacity to experience suffering, then both humans and non-humans deserve equal consideration in our moral framework. Here, sentience is a property that demands more ethical consideration than any other moral properties.

Richard Ryder calls the view that members of one species (in this case human) deserve greater moral consideration when compared to members of other species, Speciesism. The term was popularized by Peter Singer. Opponents of this view believe that human beings are not justified in the unethical treatment of non-human beings just because they belong to a different species. It is similar to racism and sexism within human society, where one argues for greater moral consideration on the basis of one’s sex or race. But what exactly is the problem in making such claims? At the outset, it does not seem like ‘sex’ or ‘race’ or ‘species’ is a morally valid category that can help in determining our mode of action towards each other or towards non-human beings. There have been arguments that have considered human exceptionalism as true or valid when determining our mode of action towards non-human beings. One could argue that adhering to the idea that human beings are superior to other life forms or to argue that humans are an exception from other forms of life, could contribute to justifying our unethical treatment of animals. These claims about human superiority and human exceptionalism have been made by comparing certain features of humans with that of non-human beings. For example, it can be argued that human beings are superior compared to other forms of life because humans are the only species who have a capacity for natural language. Historical accounts in the philosophical works of Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant have made a claim that humans are fundamentally different from other species. This ‘difference’, or the feature (property) which constituted the difference, was used as a premise that determined whether there ought to be ethical considerations in our behavior towards non-humans. For example, Descartes’ view that non-human beings are just biological machines that do not have a mind (‘soul’) has been challenged. Descartes’ reason for considering non-humans to be biological machines has been explored by various scholars who argue that his conceptualization of non-human beings has allowed justification of unethical treatment of non-humans.

Sentience as an ethical property

Why is sentience considered an ethical property? Ethical properties are ones that demand ethical consideration. Ethical considerations (in this context) are concerned with how to treat a human or a non-human being, given that certain human actions have an adverse effect on non-human beings. If one argues that the capacity to enter into a social contract is an ostensibly exclusive human property and that this capacity is the ethical property that demands ethical consideration from humans, then a non-human being without this ethical property need not demand any ethical consideration. Now, consider the case of a human baby. The baby is clearly not able to enter into a social contract. Should this mean that we treat the baby without those ethical considerations which we extend to adult humans who can enter into social contracts? Or should we recognize that babies demand a different kind of ethical consideration due to it by virtue of the potential to become an adult and enter into social contracts in the future? Since a human baby is dependent on adult humans for its wellbeing human adults may have an ethical responsibility to take care of the baby that does not arise out of an ethical property, like the capacity for a social contract, which the baby shares with adult humans, but by virtue of the fact that they are sentient beings that can experience pain.

Sentience can be defined as the ability of an agent to perceive one’s environment and the capacity to have internal subjective experiences. The capacity to have internal subjective experiences might also allow a sentient being to have a capacity for pleasure or pain. For the sake of this article, let’s say that all sentient beings have a capacity for suffering. Let’s also take a common-sense view that any intentional act that diminishes the well-being of another is unethical. Suffering goes against the idea of wellbeing. All sentient creatures seem to have a natural inclination to avoid suffering. So, torturing someone is unethical because it causes suffering to the person. If we can say that non-human beings possess sentience, any pain caused to non-human beings would also have to be unethical. However, some people argue that there are certain reasons why we may not consider non-human beings to be sentient. Only the subject who is experiencing something has direct access to that experience. So how is it that we know other human or non-human beings to be sentient? One can argue that we make sense of sentience of others by indirect means – by their speech, actions, analogy, etc., but to make sense of such indirect means, one’s reference would be oneself. In other words, I can say that my friend is feeling pain in her leg just through her speech or actions (limping, emotions on her face, etc.) only by referring to my own experience of pain. But can we use the same method to understand sentience in non-human beings? Even to understand that my friend is feeling pain in her leg, I need to have some kind of knowledge that allows me to understand her pain, which is a subjective feeling in this case. If she is describing her pain, I need to understand the meaning of her spoken words to grasp what it is referring to. I need to know that particular kind of facial expression, and action (limping) to refer to the pain in her leg. In other words, I need some understanding, conceptual, linguistic, experiential, or instinctual, to make sense of my friend’s perceivable actions. Can we use similar conceptual, experiential, and instinctual ideas to make sense of the actions of non-human beings? How to be certain as to what action of non-humans means in the context of sentience? In other words, how do we determine the correct mode of analysis of non-human actions in the context of sentience?

In Thomas Nagel’s review (Nagel 2019) of philosopher Cristine Korsgaard book titled ‘Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals’, Nagel notes that the crux of the arguments from the book focuses on the interests of non-human beings to themselves as an essential ethical property shared by all living beings. In other words, pleasure, pain, suffering, goodness, etc. cannot be understood unless it is grounded in the experience of the individual for whom something is good or bad or painful. Pleasure and pain, in this sense, is to be subjectively experienced and understood through the context of the experiencing subject. This is why a major point of debate in animal ethics focuses on the capacity of non-human beings to experience or feel pleasure and pain, i.e. sentience. In what follows, we will try to understand the idea of sentience and its significance in extending our ethical consideration towards non-human beings. But first, let us consider some arguments against the idea that non-human beings demand ethical consideration.

Descartes argued that ‘souls’ are thinking things, different from the physical body. Souls in human beings allow us to reason. Here, the capacity to reason is considered an important human property that necessitates the ethical treatment of humans. If we extrapolate the logic of the above argument, it can explain many other arguments made in the debate on animal ethics. The logic of the above argument is thus – a) Having a particular property ‘x’ or a set of properties, is necessary to consider any agent as demanding ethical treatment, b) Only humans have the property ‘x’ and all other beings lack it. Now considering (a) and (b), we can conclude – c) only human beings demand ethical treatment and no other beings can be considered in our moral framework. These kinds of arguments are made on the basis of mind, consciousness, intelligence, tool use, etc. where one property decides if an agent or an individual should be included within a certain moral framework.

Why does one property or a set of properties decide the moral value of any being? What makes certain properties so special for ethics? What is the connection between such properties and ethics? Philosophers have argued that properties like intelligence, tool use, the superiority of a particular species (Nagel 2019), etc. do not merit any ethical consideration because these properties are value-neutral, i.e., they do not hold ethical values like right or wrong. For instance, the capacity for natural language has been considered a uniquely human property. Non-humans might have their own ‘language’ but it can be differentiated from a natural language because there are certain properties that are exclusive to what we define as natural language. What does this property tell us about the ethical position of human beings when compared to other beings? The capacity for natural language may demand a separate set of ethical considerations, and because natural language is exclusively in the human domain, such ethical consideration can only be extended to human beings. But this does not mean that we demand greater ethical consideration compared to other beings. If anything, it opens up the possibility for properties that are uniquely non-human that demand a separate set of ethical considerations that need not be extended to human beings. If the capacity to enter into a social contract can be defined in terms of the ability of the agents to understand the terms of the contract, to adhere to the contract and the ability to do so by using one’s freewill, non-human beings are incapable of entering into a social contract. This is not to say that non-human beings do not reason or possess sentience. Like with the case of the human baby, the inability to enter into a social contract does not mean that they do not demand ethical consideration, but that the ethical considerations they demand are of a different nature. To argue that only uniquely human properties, merely by virtue of these properties being human, demand ethical consideration is in need of valid justification.

Korsgaard argues against the idea of protecting or giving a special privilege to certain species because she notes that ‘species’, as a scientific category, does not have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain and hence might not demand any direct ethical consideration. Species, as a category, can be considered as holding ethical consideration in certain contexts, but the challenge is to justify and explain why ‘species’, as a scientific category, holds such ethical considerations and figure out where we ought to place it when compared to other properties that demand ethical considerations. Any individual being, with a capacity to feel pleasure and pain, will be included in the ethical framework, because it is one of the most important properties that we consider when we evaluate our actions towards others. One could argue that beating someone up, killing animals for fun, subjecting criminals to torture, etc., are all unethical because the subject of such treatment would go through pain and suffering which is against the well-being of a sentient creature. But how do we determine which creatures are sentient?

One might not feel the same sense of wrongdoing when breaking a stone that one feels when hurting an animal. This is because there is no sense that the stone has the capacity to suffer if we break it. Even though the idea that stones do not feel pain or pleasure seems plainly obvious, there are some interpretations and philosophical positions in Jain philosophy and panpsychism that would disagree. The crux of the complexity lies in a very basic question – how do we ‘know’ others? Here, ‘others’ can refer to living organisms, non-living things, etc. If we claim any knowledge about the ‘other’, then we need to justify such knowledge, i.e., why such knowledge is valid, what is the mode of attaining knowledge, etc. How do we determine which of the many ‘things’ that we come across in our day to day lives demand ethical consideration and which do not? One way to approach this question is to focus on those properties that demand ethical consideration. Sentience, as a capacity to feel pleasure and pain, to be a subject of experience, etc., could be one such property. Descartes has argued that animals are like ‘biological machines’ and that they cannot ‘feel’. Even though Descartes was hesitant to stick to his claim, it is helpful to start with such a supposition to understand the objections one might make in considering non-human beings as being capable of sentience, and identify the kind of knowledge that would help in answering this question.

Knowledge of sentience

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his essay ‘What Is It Like to Be A Bat?’, embarks on an important question. He wonders if it is possible for us to have a sort of ‘scientific knowledge’ about the experience of being a bat. He is concerned with the capacity of the scientific method and discipline to understand and ‘know’ whether bats can have a ‘subjective’ experience like I do. By subjective, Nagel is referring to the first-person experience of something. For example; only I have the first-person experience of my thinking, feeling, experiencing, etc. A scientist might give an explanation of neurons firing while thinking, or a theory of hormonal change to explain the feeling of certain emotions, but this scientist does not have any access to what thinking or feeling feels to me. In this sense, the scientist has an ‘objective’ view of a phenomenon called thinking in me, but not a ‘subjective’ experience of thinking in me.

So, if the scientific method is focused on objective knowledge exclusively, then the scientific method would need some modifications to investigate the proper nature of our subjective experiences. There are other disciplines that are concerned with the subjective experiences of other humans. Literature, art, philosophy, social sciences, anthropology, etc. gives space to the understanding of subjective experiences. But here, we are concerned only with one question, i.e., can the subjective experiences of any agent be known to others? In other words, can we know for sure if all non-human living beings can be subjects of experience? What kind of knowledge should we have about the subjective experiences of non-human beings for us to be sure that non-human beings actually are subjects of experiences? An agent is considered as a subject of experience if such an agent can have a first-person experience of anything. An atom can be a subject of experience if the atom has a property that would allow it to experience something without anyone else sharing the same experience. Subjective experiences are located and manifested in the subject. My experience of taking a walk on the beach cannot be experienced by anyone else but me. Are all non-human beings capable of being subjects of experience? Or is it only a few among the non-humans that are capable of it? The epistemic demand that arises here is that in order to argue for a possibility of non-humans as subjects of experiences we would need access to the content and nature of their subjective experiences. Before we begin to answer this epistemic demand, we would also need to resolve why knowing whether non-human beings are subjects of experience can help us in determining our mode of action towards them? If we argue that non-human beings are not subjects of experience, as Aristotle, Descartes and Kant did, then one consequence would be that one can do anything to those beings without fear or concern of causing them suffering and/or pain. As mentioned in previous sections, it is only through the subjective experiences that we have the capacity for suffering. If the cause of suffering such that well-being is diminished is how we characterize an unethical act, it would follow that no action towards a being can be considered unethical if it is not a subject of experience.

Thomas Nagel argues that there is no objective or scientific way of determining whether non-human beings are subjects of experience. He notes that science is concerned with the quantifiable phenomenon and empirical observation of things in nature but being a subject of experience can only be ‘experienced’ by the experiencer, i.e., the subject who is experiencing it. One can describe one’s subjective experience to others, one can argue that the firing of neurons in the brain is what thinking is, but such arguments fail for one important reason. Describing my experience to others is just communicating something that I can put it in words and sentences, but the listener will never be able to feel or experience what I have experienced. The listener is experiencing my words and sentences which are about my experience. I can tell someone that I am happy when I am ‘feeling’ sad. An actress can act out certain emotions without feeling it. How then does one get access to real, subjective experiences? Is having access to direct subjective experiences of the other, the only way to conclude that such a person is a subject of experience?

The firing of neurons can be considered as thinking but that won’t give us any explanation about why I have a ‘feeling’ or ‘experience’ of thinking which is not just the firing of neurons. The firing of neurons can be a valid scientific theory, but it does not answer why firing of neurons while thinking is associated with an ‘experience’ of thinking in the subject. Emotions can be considered as the changes in body hormones and chemicals, but this scientific theory might not explain why I feel a certain way (the experience of being emotional) when these hormonal and chemical changes happen. In this sense, Nagel argues that we can never ‘scientifically’ know whether a bat is a subject of experience or not. We might need new tools and concepts to answer that question.

So, if the scientific study is ruled out in the manner in which Nagel describes it, how else do we solve this problem? I would propose that we do not need to ‘know’ anything specific about non-human feelings and emotions, or about their values, or about their capacity to suffer and their well-being in different situations in order to consider them as demanding our moral considerations. We might have no objective and/or direct access to the minds and internal states of non-human beings as suggested by Nagel. But this does not mean that we cannot have any understanding of non-humans. Without any direct access to the internal states of non-human beings, we might find it difficult to conclude about the content of their thoughts, i.e., what they are thinking about if they are thinking, or content of their emotional and experiential states, i.e., what they are feeling and experiencing if they feel and experience. We also do not know the structure of their thoughts if they are thinking. Their mode of ‘thinking’, if it can be called that, might be completely different from humans. But what we can still do is to ask a basic question – In spite of our limitations to have direct access to subjective internal states of non-humans; can we still argue that they are capable of internal states like feeling, experiencing, thinking, etc?

Theoretically, there is no reason for us to believe that a lack of direct access to the subjective experience of non-humans implies that non-human beings do not have any internal states at all. In fact, non-human beings may have very complex internal states that human beings cannot access. It would seem that this is a human problem, i.e., it only tells us about our own limitations in accessing certain kinds of knowledge. Just because we cannot access certain experiences, does not mean that such experiences do not exist. When my friend describes her experience of pain in her leg, I understand that she is in pain because of the common language we share. If it were to be the case that a person describes her experience to me in a language that I do not understand at all, and she does not give me any other cues like a change in her voice or pointing towards the part which is in pain, etc., then I might not be able to infer that she is in pain at all. So, we not only have no direct access to the internal states of non-human beings, but we also do not have direct access to the internal states of other human beings. I can sit in class and think about the football game I saw last night and still pretend that I am attentively listening to the lecture. When the teacher asks me if I am paying attention, I can lie and still convince the teacher that I am paying attention. In these cases, it is hard for others to determine the internal states of a specific person. We might be able to guess what the person is going through internally, we can have knowledge about their internal states from their testimony, we can think of possible states a person is in, but we do not access their direct subjective experiences. Can we argue that because I have no direct access to the internal states of our fellow humans, our fellow humans do not have any internal states at all? Could it be so that only I, as a subject of experience, am the only one in the world who is a subject of experience? Generally, we do not think so, and there might be good reasons to believe that other human beings, as well as all living beings, can be considered to have the capacity to be subjects of experience. We think other human beings, and all other living beings, are capable of being subject to experiences because we can relate our own actions to the actions of others. And this forms the basis of our knowledge that other living beings too are subjects of experiences. Hume argued against the Cartesian position and claimed that animals too are capable of reasoning and thinking. One reason that Hume presented to support his claim was to argue that just the way in which our actions are preceded by thoughtful consideration, the actions of non-human beings can also be considered to be preceded by thinking and reasoning. By ‘thinking’ Hume was referring to ‘lively ideas’ that were a result of a priori sensory experience and by ‘reason’ Hume was referring to an instinct or natural disposition to form associations among ideas by consideration of past experiences. Hume argued that his argument from analogy provided an ‘incontestable’ proof for the presence of thinking and reasoning in animals. When it came to thinking and reasoning, humans and animals only differed in ‘degree’ and not in ‘kind’. In other words, for Hume, there was no fundamental difference between thinking and reasoning in humans and non-humans, i.e., they are not of two different kinds, but it was a matter of degree.

Nagel argues that if we do not have definite scientific evidence (by ‘scientific’ Nagel is referring to the objective nature of the scientific evidence) to prove that other non-human organisms can also be subject of experiences, then we also do not have definite scientific evidence to claim that they cannot be subjects of experiences. In other words, other forms of engagement with non-humans, as pets, domestication, behavior studies, etc. suggest that non-human beings are capable of being subjects of experiences when we focus on a different mode of engagement with non-humans. The scientific approach to the question of non-human beings as subjects of experiences is only one of the many ways to approach the question. Given the nature of the subject, direct and objective empirical evidence might not be possible. Science can infer that non-humans are subjects of experiences through indirect observations and evidences, but this still has to do with the validity of arguments presented in support or against the proposition.

Anthropocentrism and ethics

Anthropocentrism is the view that our perspective is centered around human beings. In moral philosophy, anthropocentrism refers to a stance that only human beings are capable of moral consideration. Anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human qualities to other things like animals, gods, etc. For example, we might like to think that a dog or a cat would be ‘happy’ if we take proper care of it, and at the same time might not consider the possibilities that dogs and cats might value other aspects, like socializing, hunting, etc. which we deprive them. In this sense, both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism give importance to the human experience. It is necessary to pay attention to anthropocentric biases because they lead to a wrong analysis of non-human welfare and ethics. If we attribute anthropocentric concepts and ideas to define and understand non-humans, then we fail to consider the possibilities of concepts and ideas that might fit well to explain the behaviors and actions of non-humans. Different non-human beings have unique ways of perceiving, understanding, and acting in this world. This makes it necessary that we understand and consider such changes when we think of our actions towards non-humans. For example, what can be considered as well-being for a pet dog is not the same for a wild dog. One needs to understand and reflect on the ideas that one attributes to non-humans and check if it involves using human-centric concepts and ideas to make sense of the actions and behavior of non-human beings.

Darwin followed Hume and argued that the difference between humans and non-human animals is just a matter of degree and not of kind. Non-human beings too act and behave like humans – they consume food through different sources, they need water, they reproduce, etc. In this sense, using human-centric concepts in defining non-human behavior might not be entirely invalid. But one must be careful to sort out which concepts and ideas are applicable to non-humans and which are unique to human beings.

Featured image courtesy:

Gemma Evans


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