Why Animal Sentience Matters - and Why We Need a Charter for Animal Compassion

What is the role of the artist and the writer in an age of animal suffering, wildlife destruction and species extinctions? In 50 years, when our grandchildren look back at our age, will they see a response commensurate to the crisis? When they study the period spanning 1970-2020, during which two-thirds of the planet’s wild animals were killed, will they be able to locate the painters and the poets whose work plumbed the depths of the loss?

One aspect of our predicament will seem particularly strange. Looking back, our grandchildren will see that the era of greatest animal obliteration—the era in which we now live—was also an era of strident advances in the science of animal sentience. Never before had a society had such research at their fingertips. Never before had a society wrought such destructive consequence.

Animal sentience refers to the ability of animals to suffer, to experience pain and fear, and to experience pleasurable states such as joy. Sentience is tricky territory for scientists, as it concerns subjective experiences and not just physiological processes; it can be difficult to assess. Nevertheless, researchers have found persuasive evidence of animal sentience: mammals, birds, fish and many other creatures possess the ability to feel and perceive—they experience the world subjectively.

Research into animal sentience is important, as our behavior toward nonhuman animals is shaped by our perception of their sentient aptitudes. Descartes famously declared, “animals are like robots: they cannot reason or feel pain,” and then proceeded to dissect his wife’s dog to demonstrate the point (or so the story goes). Few today would concur with Descartes’ statement, but our attribution of sentience to animals is inconsistent, and this inconsistency has important consequences.

Consider the case of a factory farmed pig. Pigs are similar to dogs in many respects: They are intelligent and sociable, they wag their tails when they are happy and they learn to respond to their own names. And yet while we (in Northern America and Europe) would balk at the thought of eating the family dog, we eat our way through hundreds of millions of pigs every year, and the majority of these are raised in semi-dark sheds, upon squalid concrete, suffering considerably. We choose not to eat the family dog because we recognize that it is a sentient being. What about the pig?


IQ tests have revealed that pigs can outsmart dogs and chimpanzees. (image: fritz16/Shutterstock)

In a series of experiments described in a 2014 paper, Steve Loughman and colleagues examine the psychology of eating animals. “[Individuals eating meat] tend to reduce mind attribution to animals and see them as dissimilar to humans,” they write. “In preparation for eating meat, and after it, they attribute diminished mental capacities to animals.”

In other words, when we eat meat, many of us undergo a process of sentience-denial, a mental contortion in which we downplay the capacity of the animal (now food) to experience, feel or suffer. We do this on a largely unconscious level, without realizing, and without ill-intent.

These mental gymnastics are significant, for sentience opens the door to empathy. Allow me to conduct a brief thought experiment. Imagine a paving stone. Now try to empathize with it. Try to adopt its perspective, step into its shoes. It’s difficult, for a paving stone appears to lack sentience. It does not, as far as we know, experience pleasure or pain. It does not fear. It does not have goals and intentions. Now imagine a pig, in a cage, who has never stepped outside or seek the sky above her. It is easier to empathize with the pig, for we recognize her to be a sentient being, albeit in an inconsistent manner. And although we can never know for sure what it is to be a pig, we can, with the support of science, venture an approximation.

Just as sentience opens the doorway to empathy, so empathy makes possible compassion. Around 500 BCE, Confucius said: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” The Buddha likewise said: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This statement, in varying guises, has become known as ‘the golden rule’—the principle that underpins the practice of compassion.

As a society our interactions with nonhuman animals often lack compassion—we do not treat our mammalian, avian, reptilian, amphibian and aquatic kin as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Indeed, this is something of an understatement. Fifty billion animals are born, raised and slaughter in intensive factory farms every single year. We destroy wild animal habitats, bulldozing forests and poisoning oceans. As a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently noted, the sixth mass extinction is already underway—a process of “biological annihilation” that also represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”

If our interactions with nonhuman animals often lack compassion, this is partly because as a society, we have become stranded beyond an "empathy gap." We are inconsistent in our attribution of sentience to animals, and not only to the animals that we eat. We rarely take nonhuman animal points of view into consideration when deciding how to organize our society or interact with our natural environment. Although we possess a wealth of research into animal sentience—research that could engender inter-species empathy and more compassionate behavior—this research has not permeated our psyche. It does not shape our behavior in a meaningful sense.

What is the role of the artist and the writer in an age of animal suffering, wildlife destruction and species extinctions? Perhaps it is this: to help us see from nonhuman perspectives, to carry us into the mind of a bat or a baboon, to inform us of the sentience of a cod, to engender an attitude of inter-species empathy that might be the last bulwark against the already-unfolding annihilation of the living world.

The Charter for Animal Compassion is a non-political, non-ideological statement of the significance of empathy and compassion in an age of species-loss and animal suffering. The Charter champions the science of animal sentience and calls on writers, researchers and artists to collaborate in translating and carrying this science into popular awareness. The Charter hopes to galvanize new art and writing that helps us to see through the nonhuman animal eye—art and writing that our grandchildren might recognize as a response commensurate to the crisis we now face.

The Charter was published in July and has already has been signed by hundreds of people in over a dozen countries. Throughout the next year the Charter will be working to promote the artists, writers and researchers whose work engenders a more empathetic understanding of nonhuman animals, inspiring new patterns of behavior.

The Charter is calling on all people to sign their name and affirm the principles it contains. By affirming the Charter, you join the movement for nonhuman animal compassion. You signal your support for art and writing that sees through the animal eye. You signal your support for a more compassionate world.

Sign the Charter for Animal Compassion.

RELATED: Homo Denialus: Why We're OK With Eating Pigs, but Not Dogs

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