A Unifying Morality? How is Sentientism Different?

I wrote about the basics of sentientism in this Areo article.  In short, sentientism applies evidence and reason and extends moral consideration to all sentient beings. What I want to do here is compare sentientism with some related philosophies and movements.  Hopefully that will help clarify what sentientism is and why I think it’s valuable and distinctive.

Atheism 

Atheism in its broadest sense is the absence of a belief in deities.  Given the absence of good evidence for the existence of deities it is well founded.  There are also an infinity of things for which there is no or weak evidence so I’m not sure why you would choose to believe in any particular one. 

Sentientism is committed to applying evidence and reason, so I’d argue you can’t really be a sentientist if you’re not also an atheist. 

Sentientism differs, in that it applies reason and evidence in all domains – not just when it comes to religion.  Strictly speaking an atheist could believe in fairies and ghosts, but I’d argue a sentientist would not. 

Atheism also says nothing explicit about morality – except implying that our morality shouldn’t be based on a belief in deities.  Atheists may or may not grant moral consideration to various sentient beings – human or otherwise.  Sentientism goes further in that it explicitly grants moral consideration to all sentient beings. 

Humanism 

Modern Humanism commits to the application of evidence, reason and the scientific method.  It extends moral concern to all humans – regardless of their characteristics.  Humanism focuses on the agency of humans to define meaning and happiness and to work to alleviate suffering and enable flourishing. 

Humanism has a strong overlap with sentientism. I see the latter as a simple upgrade.  Rather than focusing on the boundary of the human species, sentientism grants moral consideration because of sentience, the ability to experience.  Humans are sentient, but so are most (if not all) non-human animals.  We may also create or encounter other sentient beings – whether artificial or even alien intelligences. 

Many humanists do grant moral consideration to non-human sentient beings.  They are already sentientists whether they know it or not. However, the very term humanism implies a species-specific morality.  Humanist organisations focus their programmes solely on the human species, many humanists are still not yet vegan or vegetarian (implying they do not grant even a base level of moral consideration to farmed animals) and a few humanists even use their humanism to justify the exploitation of non-human animals.  I’ve written more about this here.  

Secularism 

Secularism centres on maintaining an independence from religion or religious considerations. Secularist approaches include enabling freedom of and from religion and the separation of religion from the mechanisms of government. In the political context, many religious people are secularists – in that they hold personal religious views but believe these should not be privileged. 

Secularism is compatible with sentientism – but sentientism differs in explicitly rejecting beliefs not founded in evidence or reason, not just proposing to be independent from them.  As with humanism, secularism also focuses strongly on the human species whereas sentientism extends consideration to all sentient beings. 

The Brights

The Brights is an intellectual movement that adopts a naturalistic worldview and works towards civic equality for those who hold a naturalistic worldview.  The naturalistic worldview goes further than atheism in that it rejects any supernatural or mystical beliefs.  All Brights are atheists, but not all atheists are Brights.  The Brights’ focus on civic equality ties closely to secularism. 

Sentientism’s commitment to evidence and reason matches the naturalistic worldview.  Sentientists – given their granting of equal moral consideration for all humans – also want civic equality for all. 

As with humanism, the Brights movement has tended to focus on the human species.  Their morality project has collated insights about morality in non-human animals – but mainly to explain the naturalistic basis for morality among humans. Sentientism goes further and extends moral consideration to those non-human animals as well as any other sentient beings. 

Veganism 

Veganism aims to avoid the exploitation of or cruelty to animals for any purpose – most obviously food or clothing.   

Sentientism differs from veganism in using sentience, rather than the animal kingdom classification, as its basis for granting moral consideration.  This means sentientists would not grant moral consideration to any animals conclusively found not to be sentient (sea sponges?), but would grant moral consideration to sentient beings that aren’t animals such as artificial or alien intelligences. 

In practical terms, it is interesting to debate the fuzzy boundaries of animal sentience.  However, these debates shouldn’t distract from the fact that the vast majority of farmed animals and fish are sentient.   

Veganism is also open about the basis for its moral consideration for animals.  Many vegans hold supernatural or religious views, whereas sentientists show compassion for non-human animals because of scientific evidence that they can experience suffering and flourishing. 

Some sentientists may claim to grant moral consideration to sentient non-human animals while not being vegan – but to me this is an instance of cognitive dissonance rather than a coherent moral position.   

Painism 

Painism grants moral standing to any being that can experience pain.  That extends to humans, non-human animals and also potential alien or “artificial” beings.  Pain is defined broadly, to include any form of negative experience, whether physical pain, fear, injustice or boredom. 

Painism has a strong overlap with sentientism.  Both extend their moral consideration beyond humans and non-human animals based on an ability to experience. 

However, whereas painism only recognises negative experience, sentientism also acknowledges the moral validity of positive experiences. 

Painism is also silent on any commitment to evidence and reason – where sentientism is explicit about evidence and reason being the basis for extending moral consideration to sentient beings. 

Painism is also more specific about trying to find a balance between utilitarianism (adding up costs and benefits – which can lead to causing pain to some) and rights theory (granting rights that sometimes clash).  Sentientism is open to any combination of those approaches – as long as moral consideration is granted to all sentient beings. 

Anti-speciesism 

Speciesism involves assigning different rights or consideration to individuals based on their species.  Anti-speciesism argues that it is wrong to grant different consideration purely on species membership and that species membership in itself is morally irrelevant.  In its most extreme form, anti-speciesism claims that all beings (presumably only animals) should be accorded equal moral consideration. 

Sentientism agrees that species membership shouldn’t be the prime driver of moral consideration, but instead argues that sentience should be.  Sentientism’s commitment to evidence and reason involves an understanding that there are differing degrees and types of sentience between species – implying that it makes sense to grant differing degrees of moral consideration based on that level of sentience.  A purist anti-speciesist might argue that a slug and a human are of equal moral importance.  A sentientist would not.

Anti-speciesism is also silent about evidence and reason.  Many anti-speciesists hold supernatural beliefs.  Sentientists do not. 

Animalism 

Animalism in its simplest terms is the philosophical position that humans are animals.  It has also been developed, as in this article, as an extension of humanism to all sentient animals. 

In the latter context it shares sentientism’s commitment to evidence and reason.  Animalism also acknowledges sentience as the reason for granting compassion to non-human animals. 

Where sentientism differs is in being more explicit about sentience being the prime driver of moral consideration.  That makes sentientism more open to other types of sentient being such as artificial or alien intelligences. 

Conclusion 

Each of these philosophies and movements has much to commend it and they have a great deal in common.  To my mind, sentientism represents a powerful integration of their strongest elements and addresses their weaknesses.  Sentientism’s explicit focus on evidence and reason ensures a sound foundation in reality rather than in the supernatural.  Using sentience rather than species labels helps concentrate on the characteristic that really matters – helping us limit, vary and extend our compassion appropriately.

To date, there’s little mention of sentientism outside of philosophical circles. Given its importance — I feel that’s odd. If you’re interested in talking about the topics raised or finding out more, there’s a Facebook group, a sub-Reddit and a Twitter list of suspected sentientists (mostly by searching for humanist or atheist vegans and vegetarians). 
 

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