Sentientism

Humanism needs an upgrade: The philosophy that could save the world


There is a little known philosophy that is, for me at least, well founded in reality, provides a strong basis for compassionate ethics and will eventually become our predominant way of thinking. This philosophy also gives us the best chance to solve the world’s problems. 
 
 
Let’s go on a philosophical journey

We start with using evidence and reason as the basis of our beliefs – because reality is all there is. Fictional stories are real things too – as patterns of brain activity, states within computers or as ink on a page – but the subjects of those stories do not exist.

Using evidence and reason goes beyond a narrow definition of the bureaucracy of science, but scientific thinking is at its core. That naturalist worldview (see The Brights) rejects beliefs in the supernatural and mystical because there is no good evidence for their existence. If evidence for these phenomena is discovered, they are no longer supernatural and we can build our knowledge about them. 

The naturalist worldview includes atheism, simply a lack of belief in god, because there is no good evidence for the existence of god.   Atheism in itself implies little about ethics – except that they shouldn’t be driven by beliefs in deities or their religions.

Humanists then develop our ethics by granting moral consideration for all humans. We do so, because from our own experience we know directly that we suffer and flourish – we can experience bad and good things. Science and our own experience then shows us that all humans experience suffering and flourishing largely as we do. We care about the experiences of other humans because of our evolved tendencies to co-operate and to feel compassion, because of an enlightened self-interest and maybe because we strive to take an impartial standpoint. While many aspire to feel equal compassion for all humans, most of us prioritise – but we grant at least some meaningful moral consideration to all. 

Let’s take a further step… Sentientism

Sentientism is an ethical philosophy that, like humanism, rejects the supernatural and applies evidence and reason. However, it grants moral consideration to all sentient beings, not just humans. Sentient beings have sentience — the capacity to experience. Things that can’t experience might be important in other ways, but they don’t warrant our moral consideration. A mountain or a river may be important, but only because of the effect it has on the experience of sentient beings like us.  The reason we have compassion for humans is their sentience, their capacity to experience suffering and flourishing.

Sentientism goes further than humanism because humans aren’t the only sentient beings. Others deserve our moral consideration too. The most obvious are non-human animals. While scientific debate continues on the boundaries (sea sponges, for example, are animals with no brain or nervous system), it’s clear that most animals, particularly those we farm in their billions, are sentient. It’s sentience, not a somewhat arbitrary species boundary, that matters.

In the future, we are also likely to create or come across new types of sentient beings – general artificial intelligences or even alien species.  It may seem fanciful, but surely our ethics should help us think about how we should treat them and how they should treat each other, at the same time as worrying about how they will treat us.

The diversity of sentient beings is already breathtaking and science indicates that, certainly between species, degrees of sentience vary substantially. The sentientist position, or at least my conception of it, allows us to grant different degrees of moral consideration depending on where on the sentience spectrum something lies. This contrasts with the most extreme form of anti-speciesism, which can imply that all species (presumably only and all animal ones) deserve equal moral consideration.  Mark Wright wrote an interesting Areo article on this type of absolutism here.  Sentientism also avoids anthropomorphising animals.  They are likely to experience differently from humans – but their ability to experience still warrants at least a base level of moral consideration.

So, if you’re a humanist atheist and a morally motivated vegan or vegetarian, you’re likely a sentientist. Although you may be unfamiliar with the term, the ethics will probably fit. However, the vast majority of people around the world disagree with sentientism – in action if not in belief.  Many, while using evidence and reason day to day, still grant the validity of supernatural or revealed knowledge.  Others don’t grant moral consideration to animals – particularly through using products that require their suffering and death. Still others don’t grant proper moral consideration to sub-groups of humans, whether that be based on gender, sex, skin colour, race, sexual orientation, nation, tribe or some other classification or boundary.

How can Sentientism help us?

Sentientism encapsulates the powerful benefits of humanism, already a critical philosophy and growing, global movement. Both are pro-human rights and focused on our common global humanity. Both are anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-ageist, anti-nationalistic, anti-fascist and anti-LGBTQ+ phobic. Both also help us focus on what we have in common — our humanity and our sentience. While identity politics can help identify problems and provide mutual support within groups, humanism and sentientism can develop collective solutions that we can all identify with and work on together.

Like humanism, sentientism is also pro-science, reason and evidence — so is against fabrication, fake news, unsubstantiated conspiracy theory, cultural relativism, religious and supernatural thinking.  All of the problems and opportunities we face, from the existential threats of climate change, nuclear war and bio / AI technological development to the immediate challenges of global poverty, conflict prevention, development and health are better addressed with facts and critical thinking rather than dogma.

There are two areas where Sentientism goes further than humanism. For many, animal rights are a critical issue in their own right, given the more than 100 billion animals we kill every year for food, drink and other animal products. Transitioning away from animal farming is also an important step in reducing our negative impact on the environment – in terms of land use, water, emissions, pollution and energy. While many humanists (including Humanists UK in their definition) already grant moral consideration for non-human animals, sentientism makes that explicit, hence sees causing the suffering and death of sentient animals as ethically wrong.

Sentientism also helps us think through and prepare for the implications of general artificial intelligence (GAI).  We need to crystallise and evolve our own ethics to help us direct or align the ethics of AIs safely – the concepts of sentience, evidence and reason help to do that. We also need to think carefully about the rights and moral consideration we might need to grant to AIs themselves if or when they attain and then increase in sentience.

Sentientism as a movement?

Sentientism has remained a fairly niche term since it was developed as a concept by philosophers including Richard D Ryder and Peter Singer in the 1970’s.  Since then, we have seen important yet separate developments in veganism, vegetarianism and animal rights on the one hand and in the “Rise of the none’s”, atheism and humanism on the other.  These movements now have a plethora of international and local organisations building communities, driving activism and conducting lobbying– but there is little that brings the two threads together or underpins them. 

There is already untapped synergy between these movements. From a recent “hands up” poll of an audience of around a 1,000 humanists, approximately 40% said they were vegan or vegetarian – a rate much higher than the general population. It also appears, again anecdotally, that moral vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be atheists or humanists than the general population.  To me, that’s because evidence and reason underlies both viewpoints.

A range of other developments and movements also hint at a latent sentientist philosophy. Environmental and ethical concerns are driving more people to think about the animal suffering we cause and the damage to the planet caused by animal farming. The development of artificial intelligence is stimulating new fields of thought about “robot rights”. People are starting to recognise the limitations of identity politics in improving social cohesion and community building. The Effective Altruism movement is using evidence and reason to do the most good for all sentient life.

Maybe it’s time for us to pick up on these hints and upgrade humanism to sentientism. Rather than remaining as a niche philosophy, it could build on humanism’s momentum as an inclusive, well-grounded movement for addressing the world’s problems.

Human culture has enormous inertia and our traditional, in/out group and religious memes run deep. However, our ways of thinking are, fortunately, relentlessly shaped by reality. That influence has already helped us progress rapidly over the decades and centuries. Thinking based on evidence and reason proves its worth every day — there is no viable alternative to slowly, sceptically becoming less wrong through thinking, observing reality and testing then improving our thinking. 

Reason and facts are also helping us build a stronger foundation for our ethics. We are understanding more about sentient minds, what our experiences have in common with others and how we can reduce suffering and flourish.

While in/out group thinking can feel like it works in the short term for the in-group — we’re all learning, sometimes painfully, that we do better as our circles of concern expand and as we co-operate ever more widely – ultimately with all sentient beings.

That’s why I’m optimistic. The truth will out, and sentientism, at its core, is a recognition of the truth.


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, I’ve set up a Facebook group, a sub-Reddit and a Twitter list of suspected sentientists (mostly by searching for humanist vegan / vegetarians).
A version of this article was published in Areo in October 2018.

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