Only Sentience Matters

Animals Who Are Almost Human, part of an online psychology program, provides a perfect example of reinforcing the seriously problematic notion that the cognitive capacities that matter morally are humanlike ones–and not just sentience, or subjective awareness.

To the extent that we link the moral status of animals with cognitive characteristics beyond sentience, we continue the humanocentric arrogance that is speciesism. To say that the animals who matter are the ones “like us” is similar to saying humans who are light skinned matter more than humans who are dark skinned.

It’s not a matter of how “smart” animals are or whether they have mental capabilities that we recognize as being like ours. If they are sentient, that is the only characteristic that they need for us to have a moral duty not to use them as our resources.

The “animal movement,” which, in addition to its promotion of “happy” exploitation, continues to have an obsession with nonhuman great apes, marine mammals, elephants, etc., is stuck in the hole of speciesism. That approach is seriously problematic for at least two reasons:

1. It ignores that cognitive characteristics beyond sentience are morally irrelevant for determining whether we use a being exclusively as a human resource. We see that in the human context. That is, being “smart” may matter for some purposes, such as whether we give someone a scholarship, but it is completely irrelevant to whether we use someone as a forced organ donor, as a nonconsenting subject in a biomedical experiment. We ought to see this in the animal context as well.

2. It sets up a standard that animals, however much they are “like us,” can never win. For example, we have known for a long time that nonhuman great apes are very much like humans in all sorts of ways but we continue to exploit them. However much animals are “like us,” they are never enough “like us” to translate into an obligation on our parts to stop exploiting them.

What I call the “similar minds” approach involves a game that animals can never win. They’ll never be enough “like us.”

A final issue: Does a focus on sentience itself establish a hierarchy of the sentient over the non-sentient? No, because sentience is a necessary as well as sufficient characteristic for a being to have interests (preferences, desires, or wants) in the first place. A rock is not sentient; it does not have any sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything. A plant is alive but has no sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything.

It is interesting to note that the “animal movement” itself perpetuates the notion that chickens, the animal most exploited in terms of sheer numbers, lack all of those “special” cognitive characteristics and may continue to be used as a resource by humans if we do so “humanely.” And although the list of seven animals discussed here includes animals other than the ones that animal advocates usually fetishize, it still excludes chickens and our main source of dairy–cows. How convenient.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione