Heather Browning head shot

Suffering matters even if we didn’t cause it – Heather Browning – from Zookeeper to Philosopher

Find Heather’s Sentientist Conversation with me here on Youtube or here on the Sentientism podcast.

Heather is a scientist (zoology and biology), philosopher & a former zookeeper & animal welfare officer. She is now a researcher at the London School of Economics specialising in non-human animal sentience, welfare, & ethics.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?” Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” Watch on YouTube above or find the audio on our Podcast – subscribe on Apple here​​​​ & on the other platforms here.

We discuss:
0:00 Welcome

1:33 Heather Intro – biology to zookeeping to philosophy

  • Volunteering, later working at zoos. Getting to know animals
  • Studying zoology/biology
  • Studying philosophy, shifting to PhD focus on measuring animal welfare
  • “Cheetahs don’t really like to run”
  • How do “natural behaviours” relate to animal welfare
  • Trying to take the animal’s point of view
  • The Foundations of Animal Sentience programme at LSE
  • The power of interdisciplinary work

10:55 What’s real?

  • Growing up in a fairly naturalistic household. Occasional church visits
  • Being encouraged to question & explore
  • Joining a church group for the community
  • Balking at religious rules/restrictions
  • Asking questions & not getting answers
  • “Science just seemed like the best way of investigating the world”
  • Scientists are flawed humans too
  • There are many things we don’t know & some we may never understand
  • We’re evolved creatures that have developed heuristics that have been useful to us for survival/procreation
  • The dangers of a need for/expectation of perfection
  • Dangers of over-confidence/dogma/motivated reasoning in science

21:54 What matters morally?

  • Naturalism does involve giving up meaning, but we can create our own meaning
  • Hedonist nihilism. What matters to me?
  • Sitting between naturalising or eliminating morality, vs. moral realism
  • Evolutionary basis of human consciousness, including empathy, fairness, co-operation (and not just in humans)
  • “What matters is the subjective pleasure and pains we have in our lives”
  • “Our wellbeing is an objective fact about the world”
  • Empathy is caring about the wellbeing of others

31:42 Which entities matter? Moral scope

  • “I’ve always loved animals”
  • At 5 yrs “When I grow up I want to be a zookeeper”
  • Finding it difficult to eat meat. Feeling disgust
  • Saying “I’m vegetarian” to get out of cooking meat in a class, then realising “I could just do that” and going vegetarian at 12 yrs
  • Supportive parents: “Now you need to learn to cook!” & being joined by a sister
  • A friend was told “You can’t go vegetarian”
  • The increasing acceptability of veg*nism in many cultures
  • Veganism might not yet have reduced the scale of animal farming but it’s at least reduced the rate of growth
  • Whether fast-growing economies can bypass the fossil fuel/factory farm path

40:05 Biocentrism & ecocentrism

44:30 Wild animal suffering

  • How important is freedom and “natural” behaviour to animal welfare
  • Welfare biology
  • We shouldn’t be naive about experiences in the wild but we shouldn’t exaggerate their suffering either. More science needed
  • Suffering matters even if we didn’t cause it
  • Tractability, complexity and unintended consequences are serious issues but they’re not an excuse for turning away
  • Genetic engineering, fencing, wildlife corridors, contraception… or “kill them all”
  • Marc Bekoff and Compassionate conservation
  • It’s interesting how animals (including humans!) can be removed from moral consideration just by putting them in a category

54:46 Human ethics

  • Sentientism rejects intra-human discrimination too
  • Philosophical pluralism and the importance of moral considerability
  • Understanding the harm/experience is separate from deciding what to do

58:14 Animal farming & fishing

  • Human taste preference & social norms vs. severe physical pain & death

1:00:10 The Future

  • Nearly all people on the planet disagree with Sentientism
  • Cognitive vs. emotional morality
  • Social conditioning and norms. Indoctrination. Social contagion
  • #JustTransition (e.g. Rancher Advocacy Programme, MfA’s Transfarmation). Understanding animal farmers
  • Potential common re: ending factory farming
  • “Humane” slaughter & human toddler farming!
  • Sentience enhancement & transhumanism

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info. Join Heather on our “I’m a Sentientist” wall using this simple sign-up form.

​Everyone interested, Sentientist or not, is welcome in our groups. Our biggest so far is here on FaceBook.

Thanks Graham for the post-prod. Follow him @cgbessellieu.

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