Sentience and Personhood

According to this article:

India has officially recognized dolphins as non-human persons, whose rights to life and liberty must be respected. Dolphin parks that were being built across the country will instead be shut down.

In a statement, the government said research had clearly established cetaceans are highly intelligent and sensitive, and that dolphins “should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights.”

The movement to recognize whale and dolphins as individuals with self-awareness and a set of rights gained momentum three years ago in Helsinki, Finland when scientists and ethicists drafted a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. “We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being,” they wrote.

Since yesterday, I have received a significant number of requests to comment on this report.

I have two responses.

First, I refer you to an essay, “Our Hypocrisy,” which I wrote for The New Scientist in June 2005:

Our Hypocrisy

Do Great apes, dolphins, parrots, and perhaps even “food” animals have certain cognitive characteristics that entitle them to be accorded greater moral consideration and legal protection?

A considerable literature has so argued in recent times. The central idea behind this enterprise is the notion that we must rethink our relationship with non-humans if we find they are intelligent, self-aware, or have emotions. To the extent that non-humans have minds like ours, runs the argument, they have similar interests, and they are entitled to greater protection because of those interests. This “similar-minds” approach has spawned an industry of cognitive ethologists eager to investigate – ironically often through various sorts of animal experiments – the extent to which they are like us.

It is astonishing that 150 years after Darwin, we are still so surprised that other animals may have some of the characteristics thought to be uniquely human. The proposition that humans have mental characteristics wholly absent in non-humans is inconsistent with the theory of evolution. Darwin maintained that there are no uniquely human characteristics, and that there were only quantitative and not qualitative differences between human and non-human minds. He argued that non-humans can think and reason, and possess many of the same emotional attributes as humans.

What is more troubling about the similar-minds approach is its implications for moral theory. Although it appears to be progressive, to indicate that we really are evolving in our moral relationship with other species, the similar-minds approach actually reinforces the very paradigm that has resulted in our excluding non-humans from the moral community. We have historically justified our exploitation of non-humans on the ground that there is a qualitative distinction between humans and other animals: the latter may be sentient, but they are not intelligent, rational, emotional or self-conscious.

Although the similar-minds approach claims that, empirically, we may have been wrong in the past and at least some non-humans may have some of these characteristics, it does not question the underlying assumption that a characteristic other than sentience – the ability to feel pain – is necessary for moral significance.

Arbitrary lines

Any attempt to justify our exploitation of non-humans based on their lack of “human” characteristics begs the moral question by assuming that certain characteristics are special and justify differential treatment. Even if, for instance, humans are the only animals who can recognise themselves in mirrors or can communicate through symbolic language, no human is capable of flying, or breathing under water without assistance. What makes the ability to recognise oneself in a mirror or use symbolic language better in a moral sense than the ability to fly or breathe under water? The answer, of course, is that we say so and it is in our interest to say so.

Aside from self-interest, there is no reason to conclude that characteristics thought to be uniquely human have any value that allows us to use them as a non-arbitrary justification for exploiting non-humans. Moreover, even if all animals other than humans were to lack a particular characteristic beyond sentience, or to possess that characteristic to a lesser degree than humans, such a difference cannot justify human exploitation of non-humans.

Differences between humans and other animals may be relevant for other purposes. No sensible person argues that non-human animals should drive cars, vote or attend universities, but such differences have no bearing on whether we should eat non-humans or use them in experiments. We recognise this conclusion when it comes to humans. Whatever characteristic we identify as uniquely human will be seen to a lesser degree in some humans and not at all in others. Some humans will have the same deficiency that we attribute to non-humans, and although the deficiency may be relevant for some purposes, it is not relevant to whether we exploit such humans.

Consider, for instance, self-consciousness. Any sentient being must have some level of self-awareness. To be sentient means to be the sort of being who recognises that it is that being, and not some other, who is experiencing pain or distress. Even if we arbitrarily define self-consciousness in an exclusively human way as, say, being able to think about thinking, many humans, including those who are severely mentally disabled, lack that type of consciousness.

Again, this “deficiency” may be relevant for some purposes, but it has no bearing on whether we should use such humans in painful biomedical experiments or as forced organ donors. In the end, the only difference between humans and non-humans is species, and species is no more a justification for exploitation than race, sex or sexual orientation.

This is why the similar-minds approach is misguided, and will only create new speciesist hierarchies, in which we move some non-humans, such as the great apes or dolphins, into a preferred group, and continue to treat all others as things lacking morally significant interests.

If, however, we want to think seriously about the human/non-human relationship, we need to focus on one, and only one, characteristic: sentience. What is ironic is that we claim to take the suffering of non-humans seriously. As a matter of social morality, we are virtually unanimous in agreeing that it is morally wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering or death on non-humans. For such a prohibition to have any meaning, it must preclude inflicting suffering on non-humans merely for our pleasure, amusement or convenience.

The problem is that although we express disapproval of the unnecessary suffering of non-humans, most of their suffering and death can be justified only by our pleasure, amusement or convenience, and cannot by any stretch be plausibly characterised as “necessary”. We kill billions of animals annually for food. It is not “necessary” in any sense to eat meat or animal products. Indeed, an increasing number of healthcare professionals maintain that these foods may be detrimental to human health. Moreover, environmental scientists have pointed out the tremendous inefficiencies and costs to our planet of animal agriculture. In any event, our justification for the pain, suffering and death inflicted on these farmed non-humans is nothing more than our enjoyment of the taste of their flesh.

And it is certainly not necessary to use non-humans for sport, hunting, entertainment or product testing, and there is considerable evidence that reliance on animal models in experiments or drug testing may even be counterproductive.

In sum, when it comes to non-humans, we exhibit what can best be described as moral schizophrenia. We say one thing about how non-humans should be treated, and do quite another. We are, of course, aware that we lack a satisfactory approach to the matter of our relationship to other animals, and we have for some time now been trying to find one.

If we took seriously the principle that it was wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on non-humans, we would stop altogether bringing domestic animals into existence for human use, and our recognition of the moral status of animals would not depend on whether a parrot can understand mathematics or a dog recognise herself in a mirror. We would take seriously what Jeremy Bentham said over 200 years ago: “The question is not, can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?”

I discuss these ideas at greater length in my essay, “Taking Sentience Seriously,” which was published originally in 2006 and is reprinted as Chapter 3 in my book, Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation.

Second, I would emphasize that although Bentham correctly identified sentience as the only characteristic required for moral significance, he made a significant error. He believed that animals do not care that we used them, but only about how we treat and kill them. According to Bentham, animals live in the present and are not aware of what they lose when we take their lives. If we kill and eat them, “we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have.”

Echoes of Bentham’s views persist in the thinking of certain animal advocates, such as Peter Singer, who states:

You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed. What is different about humans? Humans are forward-looking beings, and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die. (, March 8, 2009)

[T]o avoid inflicting suffering on animals—not to mention the environmental costs of intensive animal production—we need to cut down drastically on the animal products we consume. But does that mean a vegan world? That’s one solution, but not necessarily the only one. If it is the infliction of suffering that we are concerned about, rather than killing, then I can also imagine a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm. (The Vegan, Autumn 2006.)

In a recent essay, “On Killing Animals,” which was published in The Point, I argued that it is Bentham’s thinking that leads even those who claim to subscribe to an “animal rights” position to think that killing healthy dogs and cats can be regarded as morally acceptable.

This view–that an interest in continued life is contingent on humanlike self-awareness–is precisely the sort of thinking that has led to the position that, although all sentient animals have interests in not suffering that count morally, only certain animals have an interest in not being used at all or killed for human purposes.

I think that the “similar minds” approach, which serves as the foundation of the “happy” exploitation movement, which is presently dominating the animal movement, is very much misguided and should be rejected in favor of the position that sentience is sufficient to ground an obligation not to treat a being exclusively as a means to an end, however “humane” our treatment may be.


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!

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2013 Gary L. Francione