Opinion: Trying to make sense of animal sentience – the first task for the UK Parliament

Updated: May 21

The UK government’s proposal to legislate on what constitutes a ‘sentient being’ could create more problems than it solves. Ann Furedi, former CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service who is currently researching the phenomenon of sentience in the human fetus, looks at some of the issues that this controversial move stirs up.

Our thinking about animals has changed since the 17th century French scientist-philosopher, Nicholas Malebranche, infamously observed: “they eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, feel nothing, know nothing”[1]. In the United Kingdom, animal welfare is now a prime consideration and a matter of pride, and the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has provided a legal and regulatory framework for the humane treatment of many species.


Now a proposed Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, has made provision for an Animal Sentience Committee to consider the possible effects of government policy on the welfare of animals considered ‘sentient beings’. Currently, the focus of attention will be vertebrates (birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals), but Statutory Instruments already exist for the inclusion of invertebrates in discussions by the Committee. However, you have to wonder if the Bill’s sponsors, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, realise the ferocity of the hornets in the nests they are about to stir.


The EU research and innovation magazine, Horizon, is already speculating on How does it feel to be a bee?. It cites Dr Jonathon Birch, a philosopher of science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and principal investigator on The Foundations of Animal Sentience Project (ASENT), who claims that sentience is “one of the greatest challenges facing science and philosophy in the 21st Century”. It is not, he says, “science as usual...we need new ways of thinking”.


This is going to be a colossal problem. Before an Animal Sentience Committee can function, even before it can agree which animals it covers, it will need to agree what it means by sentience. This is no easy ask. Every definition provokes the need for further definitions. If sentience is ‘the quality of being able to experience feeling’, then what do we mean by feeling? How do we decide it? How do we measure it? Expecting a consensus between philosophers and scientists on sentience stretches optimism to breaking point! We have been arguing about Thomas Nagel’s seminal paper What is it like to be a bat? on whether human consciousness can imagine what it is like to be a bat, for more than 40 years. So we cannot expect an answer on this, or any workable definition of sentience as it pertains to how and what animals feel, anytime soon.


ASENT, a five-year ERC-funded project, recognises that the field is characterised by controversy. Its website describes sentience as ‘the capacity to feel’ and then narrows it down to ‘the capacity to have feelings with a positive or negative quality such as feelings of pain, pleasure, boredom, excitement, frustration, anxiety and joy’.


It seems very appropriate for there to be multi-disciplinary research project that engages with these issues and consider what a particular species-experience of feelings are. But the translation of this into policy impact is a big reach. And it is unclear why the Government feels it needs this Committee now, other than responding to calls that more must to done to take account of animal welfare.


One huge worry is what effect this focus will have on practical work with animals. Would it still be acceptable to use animals believed to be sentient as research models to predict human responses to drugs and disease? Or how about the use of sentient animals in basic research, which is curiosity-driven and not goal-oriented – would this still be justifiable? If pigs that are used in agricultural production are deemed to be sentient, and worthy of greater animal welfare consideration, then why not minipigs, which are increasingly used in scientific research?


Insects also seem to be generating much discussion in the field of animal welfare. In answer to the question of how insects should be treated, Birch suggests: “where some evidence of consciousness-linked cognitive abilities exists, no matter how tentative, there is a case for applying a version of the precautionary principle: We should err on the side of caution and take precautionary measures to safeguard the welfare of the animals concerned” [2]. He goes on to conclude that this is the beginning of the debate because, “we have no real grip on what would constitute proportionate measures to protect the welfare of bees.” Too right. But what does it mean then to apply the precautionary principle?


Writing in the Guardian (16 May) Birch advises that, “we shouldn’t be afraid of following the evidence wherever it may lead.” Yet we have spent a year in lockdown trying to ‘follow the science’ of virology and epidemiology, only to conclude that even when the science provides ‘evidence’, its interpretation requires judgement. Who will be responsible for the judgements on sentience? And on what values should they be based? These are questions that should concern us all.


[1] Cited in Peter Harrison,[1992] ‘Descartes on Animals’, The Philosophical Quarterly vol 42 no 167. [2] (Birch J, The Search for Invertebrate Consciousness Nous 2020; 1-21 [Ann Furedi italics])


May 2021

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