In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords is currently scrutinizing the new animal welfare bill, and many have argued that it is bad law. It doesn’t solve any particular legal problem, and there are concerns that passing it will give some committee free reign to hammer the farming and fishing industries.
These are good points, but they miss what is so disturbing about this proposed legislation. The crucial difference between this bill and existing legislation is its repeated emphasis on animal sentience. The bill insists British law recognize that animals can suffer and for the government to take that already accepted fact into account whenever it makes new policies.
Supporters of the bill see this as uncontroversial. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to ease suffering? Surely, the bill simply formalizes what all decent people already think. The problem with this new focus on sentience is that it subtly shifts the focus of value. The concern becomes not the animal itself but what the animal feels. While such thinking might initially seem unproblematic, it comes out of a reductionist strain of thought that has disturbing implications for the sanctity of human life.
Where did this obsession with animal sentience come from? To answer that, we can look to the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who in turn referred to the utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham, for his views on how we treat animals.
Peter Singer argues that it is the capacity for suffering that makes a creature—human or not—worthy of moral consideration. He lays out his case in his essay All Animals are Equal and starts with a brief summation of the reasons against discrimination among humans. He asserts that it is wrong to mistreat people on the basis of their race or IQ because differences in skin color and intelligence do not justify different moral consideration. Why shouldn’t we apply this same reasoning to animals? Is there some feature that all humans have which animals don’t? And does this difference justify treating animals as our inferiors?
Singer concludes that there is no meaningful characteristic we can use to include all humans in the moral sphere and exclude nonhumans. The capacity for reason or communication is a nonstarter: horses are more intelligent than infants; dogs are better conversationalists than the severely mentally impaired. Whatever characteristic we pick, there will inevitably be some humans that lack it and some nonhumans that share it. This means that when we give a human preferential treatment by virtue of their just being a human being, we are being speciesist. We act out of an unjustified prejudice toward members of our own species and are no better than the racist who discriminates on the basis of color.
From this, Singer argues that the criterion used to give a being moral status is its capacity to suffer. There is no problem in kicking a stone because it feels no pain. A lab rat, on the other hand, can suffer, and so its interests should be considered.
This argument has convinced many and is often employed by animal rights campaigners. But there is a dark side to Singer’s thinking. Sentience, the ability to suffer, is determined to be the grounds of moral status. Appeals to concepts such as “the sanctity of human life” or “the intrinsic worth of all men” are dismissed as mumbo-jumbo. After all, there is nothing particularly special about simply being human. Rather, it is suffering itself that is to be avoided.
It might be true that this new shift in focus has opened up the realm of moral status to more creatures; but it has also excluded certain humans. When suffering is the focus of moral deliberation, being human is a factor easily overridden. Singer himself has advocated euthanasia for infants born with disabilities—a procedure referred to as “post-natal abortion.” His reasoning is that such a child faces a lifetime of suffering and will most likely make his parents’ lives a misery too. It would therefore be better for such a child to be painlessly killed shortly after birth.
When philosophy leads us to the conclusion that it is more morally problematic to roast a chicken than to end the life of a one-week-old child with Down’s Syndrome, it has gone dangerously astray. But how did it come to this point? What was it that led us to the conclusion that human worth—and the worth of all other creatures—should be reduced to sentience and for such a conclusion to become so popular that the British are considering having it enshrined in law?
The quick answer is that our society has rejected the truth that man is made in the image of God and derives his intrinsic worth from the divine. However, we can enter into this question more deeply.
Pope John Paul II cites Descartes’ declaration Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) as a crucial turning point in human thought. He writes:
In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, was subordinate to esse which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary and he judged the cogito to be prior. (John Paul II, Memory and Identity, p.9.)
The upshot of this shift was to base all knowledge and truth on what the human mind could discern rather than seeing existence (which is dependent on God) as the center of everything. In stark contrast to the pre-Descartes Thomistic thought, the human mind was now central—not God.
This changed how philosophy was conducted. Descartes set out to give knowledge a fixed, mathematical-style certainty. Knowledge was to be premised not on God-given existence but on what could be fully grasped by the human mind. This process inverts our understanding of how things derive their value. Pre-Cartesian thought understood that all values derive their worth from God. The values of use and pleasure are to be valued in that they can lead us to the holy.
Post-Descartes philosophy flips this process around. A concept such as “the holy” is a hard value to fix upon and articulate: it evades the mathematical certainty Cartesians look for. Pleasure, however, is something we can grasp and measure. Therefore, the values of use and pleasure were deemed to be the values from which all other values derive. Religion is seen as valuable insofar as it offers comfort and aids social cohesion, not because it points to the divine.
Although the modern tendency to base our values on pleasure rather than God can find roots in Descartes, the tension is one of the oldest themes in the human story. In the Genesis account of the Fall of Man, sin enters the world when Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The original Hebrew translates this as “knowledge of what is useful and what is useless.” When they eat from the tree, Adam and Eve are able to decide—independently of God—what is good, or in other words, what they deem useful and conducive to their pleasure.
This tension cuts through all of us, but we can certainly point to cases where a society drifts dramatically in one direction. Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum certainly caused a swing toward a man-made concept of good. And John Paul II argued that this swing underpins many of the horrors Europe saw in the 20th century. Whole societies set out to determine who was useful and to discard those considered useless.
The animal welfare (sentience) bill may seem like a fairly innocuous piece of legislation. However, its focus on sentience identifies it as yet another manifestation of a society which seeks to reduce all value and worth to human-based principles. Such thinking is reductive, anti-Christian and, as argued earlier, is based on a philosophy that has disturbing implications for the sanctity of human life. This is not to deny that animals have worth, but it is to assert that worth comes from their existence, not their feelings.