Sentiocentrism, sentio-centrism, or sentientism is the philosophy that sentient individuals (i.e., basically conscious beings) are the center of moral concern. The philosophy posits that all and only sentient beings have intrinsic value and moral standing, thus they are regarded as moral patients; while the rest of the natural world only has instrumental value. Both humans and other sentient animals have rights and/or interests that must be considered.
Sentiocentrists consider discrimination between sentient beings of different species to be speciesism, an arbitrary discrimination. Coherent sentiocentrist belief respects all sentient beings. Many self-described humanists see themselves as "sentientists" where the term humanism contrasts with theism and does not describe the sole focus of humanist concerns.
History of term
Utilitarianism accepts sentiocentrism, thus granting all sentient beings moral concern, where sentient beings are those that have the capacity for experiencing positive or negative conscious states. The 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham was among the first to argue for sentiocentrism in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, where he made a comparison between slavery and sadism toward humans and non-human animals:
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor [see Louis XIV's Code Noir] ... What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?— Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, (1823), 2nd edition, Chapter 17, footnote
Peter Singer provides the following justification of sentiocentrism:
The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way. It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a child. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. A mouse, on the other hand, does have an interest in not being tormented, because mice will suffer if they are treated in this way. If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that the suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – in so far as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience (...) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others.— Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (2011), 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, p. 50
In line with the above, Utilitarian philosophers such as Singer not only care about the wellbeing of humans, but also about the wellbeing of sentient non-human animals. Utilitarians reject speciesism, the discrimination of individuals on the basis of their species membership. Drawing an analogy between speciesism and other forms of arbitrary discrimination, Peter Singer writes that
Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.— Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (2002), 3rd edition, Ecco: New York, p. 9
In the animal kingdom, there is a gradation in the nervous complexity, taking examples from the marine sponges that lack neurons, intestinal worms with ~ 300 neurons or humans with ~ 86 billion. While the existence of neurons is not sufficient to demonstrate the existence of sentience in an animal, it is a necessary condition, without neurons there is no place where it can happen (and the fewer the neurons, the lower the maximum capacity of intelligence an organism).
Gradualist sentiocentrism states that more complex interests deserve more consideration than less complex moral interests. One implication of this premise is that the best interests of a simple organism does not deserve consideration before the non-best interest in a complex organism (e.g., a dog with intestinal worms should be healed even though this results in the death of the parasites). Note that this does not lead to the rejection of interests of complex animals (such as pigs) versus the human desire to feed on them.
This is a vision that expands to areas that are not only relevant to other species, but uniquely to human issues, as is the case on the legalization of abortion. Gradualism poses a greater consideration of the mother against the fetus in question, given that the latter does not have the ability to own even remotely complex (at least in the early stages of gestation) interests. An emblematic case in this debate is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who says that "a human embryo in early stage, without nervous system and presumably lacking pain and fear, could justifiably be afforded less moral protection than an adult pig, which it is clearly well equipped to suffer".
- Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney (eds.). Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare (PDF). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
- Singer, Peter (2011). Practical Ethics (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0521707688.
- Regan, Tom (2004). The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 82–90.
- Warren, Mary Anne. A Critique of Regan's Animal Rights Theory. pp. 90–97.
- List of animals by number of neurons
- MacClellan, Joel P (2012) "Minding Nature: A Defense of a Sentiocentric Approach to Environmental Ethics" University of Tennessee.