Sentiocentrism or sentio-centrism describes 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 moral patients; while the rest of the natural world 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.
History of term
The utilitarian criterion of moral standing is, therefore, all and only sentient beings (sentiocentrism). The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham compiled Enlightenment beliefs in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (second edition, 1823, chapter 17, footnote), and he included his own reasoning in a comparison between slavery and sadism toward 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?
Peter Singer, in A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation (pp. 73–82); Tom Regan, in The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights (pp. 82–90) and Warren, in A Critique of Regan's Animal Rights Theory (pp. 90–97) talk about sentiocentrism.
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.
- Bentham, Jeremy. "Chapter XVII". An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
- "Philosophy 224: Environmental Ethics".
- 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.