The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a milestone in moral and political thinking and remains an influential reference today.
Given Sentientism extends moral consideration to all sentient beings, not just humans, shouldn’t we consider extending the UDHR? As a thought experiment, I’ve set out some thoughts on what a Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights might look like. Many thanks to those in our Sentientism community (all welcome to join) who have helped.
At the moment I’ve done this by updating the UDHR and removing some of the more formal language. Ultimately it may be more useful to re-write it from scratch.
Please help me improve it – feedback very welcome via comments below or @sentientism.
- Do sentient animals need all of these rights – does it matter if they have rights they can’t or won’t use?
- Do sentient animals need specific additional rights?
- Do rights need to differ for wild animals?
- Can we apply duties and responsibilities to animals in the same way as we do to humans?
- Do these rights work as-is for artificial or alien beings that have human-equivalent sentience? What about those with a higher degree of sentience?
- Do we need to grant rights differentially by different degrees of sentience?
- Does granting rights more widely constrain our ability to sensibly prioritise causes?
Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the inalienable rights of all sentient beings is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.
Sentient beings all experience forms of suffering, which they wish to minimise and flourishing or well-being which they wish to enhance. They share evolutionary origins and share environmental habitats and resources.
Disregard and contempt for the rights of sentient beings have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged our consciences, caused the suffering and death of billions and damaged our shared environment. The advent of a world in which sentient beings shall enjoy freedom from constraint, fear, and suffering has been proclaimed as our highest aspiration.
It is essential, if sentient beings are not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that their rights should be protected by the rule of law.
It is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations, groups and species.
The peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in the fundamental rights of sentient beings, in the dignity and worth of sentient beings and, within that structure, in the equal rights of all those with human-level sentience. We have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of the rights and fundamental freedoms of sentient beings.
A common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge.
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF SENTIENT RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all beings and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the beings of Member States themselves and among the beings of territories under their jurisdiction.
Article 1 – Freedom and Equality
All beings with a human-equivalent level of sentience are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Beings with lower than human levels of sentience are born free and are accorded dignity and rights in accordance with their degree of sentience.
Those beings endowed with reason and conscience should act towards all sentient beings in a spirit of solidarity.
Article 2 – No Discrimination
Every sentient being is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration in accordance with their level of sentience, without distinction of any further kind, such as species, race, colour, sex, gender, sexual preference, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a being belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Article 3 – Life, Liberty, Security
Every sentient being has the right to life, liberty and security.
Article 4 – No Slavery
No sentient being shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5 – No Torture
No sentient being shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6 – Recognition Before the Law
Every sentient being has the right to recognition everywhere as a sentient being before the law.
Article 7 – Equality Before the Law
All beings at a certain level of sentience are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 8 – Effective Remedy
Every sentient being has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted them by the constitution or by law.
Article 9 – No Arbitrary Arrest or Exile
No sentient being shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 10 – Fair and Public Hearings
Every sentient being is entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of their rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against them.
Article 11 – Presumed Innocent
(1) Every sentient being charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence.
(2) No sentient being shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
Article 12 – No Arbitrary Interference
No sentient being shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon their honour and reputation. Every sentient being has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Article 13 – Freedom of Movement
(1) Every sentient being has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Every sentient being has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.
Article 14 – Asylum
(1) Every sentient being has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Article 15 – Nationality
(1) Every being with human-level sentience has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality nor denied the right to change their nationality.
Article 16 – Family
(1) Sentient beings of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality, sexual preference or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
Article 17 – Property
(1) Every sentient being has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their property.
Article 18 – Freedom of Thought
Every sentient being has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change or cease their religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion, belief or worldview in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19 – Freedom of Expression
Every sentient being has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 20 – Peaceful Assembly and Association
(1) Every sentient being has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Article 21 – Government and Representation
(1) Every sentient being has the right to take part in the government of their country, directly, through freely chosen representatives, or, where beings are not capable of choose representatives, through appointed representatives.
(2) Every sentient being has the right of equal access to public service in their country.
(3) The will of sentient beings shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote, by equivalent free voting procedures or through appointed representation where beings are not capable of voting individually.
Article 22 – Social Security
Every sentient being, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for their dignity and the free development of their personality.
Article 23 – Work, Unions and Compensation
(1) Every sentient being capable of work has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Every sentient being, without any discrimination, has the right to equal compensation for equal work.
(3) Every sentient being who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for themselves and their family an existence worthy of dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Every sentient being has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.
Article 24 – Rest and Leisure
Every working sentient being has the right to rest, sleep and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Article 25 – Standard of Living and Well-Being
(1) Every sentient being has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and of their family, including food and drink, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All offspring, whatever their family circumstances, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Article 26 – Education
(1) Every sentient being capable of receiving an education has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the personality and to the strengthening of respect for rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children as long as that education is committed to the application of evidence and reason and the granting of degrees of moral consideration to all sentient beings.
Article 27 – Culture, Science and Intellectual Property
(1) Every capable sentient being has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Every sentient being has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which they are the author.
Article 28 – Social and International Order
Every sentient being is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
Article 29 – Duties, Rights of Others
(1) Every sentient being has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of their personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of their rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Article 30 – Protecting Rights and Freedoms
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.
NEW Article 31 – Right to Refuse to Kill or Harm
Every sentient being has the right to refuse to kill or cause harm to another sentient being.
NEW Article 32 – Right to Die
Every sentient being has the right to die at a time of their choosing. Sentient beings also have the right to assist others who wish to exercise their right to die, subject to appropriate safeguards.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Wikipedia article
- Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Wikipedia article (useful for considering beings with less than human adult maturity?).
- The Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (note focus on welfare, not rights)
- Proposals for Universal Declarations of Animal Rights, here, here and here
- Marc Bekoff’s Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience
- Alastair Cochrane’s “From Human Rights to Sentient Rights”
- The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.
Robot / Artificial Intelligence (AI) Rights:
- Wikipedia page on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, including a section on Robot Rights
- Article by David Petrasek on the possible convergence of Human and non-human rights.
Science Fiction and World Building:
- The Universal Declaration of Sophont Rights in the Orion’s Arm world
- Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights in the Sufficient Velocity world.
Wow! Responding to this requires a book I think! While acknowledging that there are many sound arguments for improving the lot of sentient beings, there are a number of issues that I struggle with.
First of all relating to animals behaviour towards other animals (or humans). Carnivorous wild animals will always catch and eat their prey. It wd be cruel in the extreme and probably destroy the species if they were prevented from doing so. But it’s not just wild animals – sd you try to stop cats from eating birds – and what about rats and mice? And while I would never want to kill a bird I would happily shoot rats if I thought they would invade my home. And they wd of course do that if they could to get food. I guess this also brings up the problem of self defence against any attacker – human or another sentient being. To defend yourself or others being attacked wd be a natural reaction I think and I don’t think you would stop and consider whether or not the attacker was sentient or not.
Eating them of course is a whole different matter. And there is good argument for saying that – apart from its sentience – not eating meat products is good (necessary) to save the planet. But the latter argument is only valid now because of the huge & increasing demand by a quickly growing population- it would not have been valid 100 years ago. So while the potential destruction of the planet has to be considered here it does not affect our thinking regarding treatment of sentient beings. That’s worn out half my brain – but hopefully some of my thoughts maybe interesting!
Thank you. There’s so much complexity here and many things we could choose to prioritise or not.
I hope there’s still value in 1) being clear about what beings deserve some moral consideration / rights and 2) targeting clear cases where humans in particular are causing unneccessary harm.
I’d suggest we can get to the issues of suffering in the wild after we’ve stopped causing suffering directly on an industrial scale. Granting rights doesn’t prevent us from picking our causes intelligently.
“Does granting rights more widely constrain our ability to sensibly prioritise causes?”
Yes. Read “The Collapse of the Harm Principle” to see how rights, justice, and the practice of law in all liberal democracies are collapsing because we cannot adjudicate between competing claims of harm. Agreeing to “rights” or just banning the ill treatment of sentient beings is great, but it doesn’t solve this problem.
Thanks Ed – interesting piece. Trading off various harms and benefits can be very hard. I agree, having statements of rights or just granting moral consideration to beings doesn’t resolve those complexities, but I’m not sure it prevents us working through them and the various priority calls we need to make. The UD Human Rights has left many problems unresolved and doesn’t fully address areas where rights conflict – yet it has still been a positive influence.
At the same time, I’d suggest there is value in being clear about who and what deserves moral consideration. In Sentientism, that’s anything capable of experiencing suffering or well-being / flourishing. For example most people, in action at least, grant sentient animals zero moral consideration.
There are also myriad cases where the harm trade-offs are very obvious and the action we should take is clear (some ideas in this Tweet thread https://twitter.com/sentientism/status/1068153626143744005). I think we can make progress with that very long list – without letting the really complex cases slow us down.