Moral Status of Animals - BBC - 3

Sentient and insentient organisms

Sentient organisms

Sentient organisms are creatures that have subjective experiences.

Some writers argue that "only organisms that have subjective experiences deserve moral consideration."

Let's unpack that thought:

Only organisms that value one experience more than another deserve moral consideration.

Such organisms must have 'interests', because only organisms with 'interests' are able to value one experience more than another experience.

These organisms have an 'interest' in avoiding painful experiences and an 'interest' in seeking out pleasurable experiences.

So, organisms must be able to experience pain or pleasure if they are to value their experiences.

Such organisms are described as "having subjective experiences".

Insentient organisms

Snail on a leaf Both snail and plant are considered insentient

Insentient organisms don't have subjective experiences.

Organisms that don't have subjective experiences don't experience events as good or bad, and so, in moral terms, it doesn't matter what happens to them.

As Peter Singer puts it: where "a being is not capable of suffering, or of enjoyment, there is nothing to be taken into account."

The organisms and things that don't have subjective experiences and so don't deserve moral consideration are:

  • non-living things
  • plants
  • very simple organisms
  • insects
  • molluscs

All other animals - human and non-human - deserve moral consideration.

Self-aware organisms

Sentient organisms (see above) can be divided into two groups:

  • those that are merely conscious
  • those that are aware of themselves as
    • beings that are alive
    • beings that have been alive in the past
    • beings that would prefer to stay alive

The first group experience pain and pleasure but don't think about themselves in any meaningful way.

This kind of being is, in a sense, impersonal ... in killing it; one does it no personal wrong, although one does reduce the quantity of happiness in the universe. But this wrong, if it is wrong, can be counterbalanced by bringing into existence a similar being which will live an equally happy life

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1979

Members of the second, self-aware group, which includes human beings, are aware of their own existence and concerned about what will happen to them in the future.

This awareness and preference to go on living, makes them deserve greater moral consideration than the first group.

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