Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ethics and Morality

Animal Sentience and Environmental Ethics

NYU's Center for Environmental and Animal Protection is a gift to animals.

Key points

  • NYU's CEAP wants people to better understand what science is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.
  • Values underlie everything, including science.
  • Changes in heart lead us to see the world in a more inclusive way.

Nonhuman animals (animals) need all the help they get in an increasingly human-centered world. The Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection (IASP) at the University of Denver is a move in the right direction. So, too, is NYU's eclectic Center for Environmental and Animal Protection (CEAP), the mission of which is "to provide academic leadership for research and policy-making in addressing critical social issues at the intersection of environmental and animal protection," where close attention is given to agency, sentience, and cognition.1

Source: Marina Zurkow. Dale Jamieson, used with permission
Source: Marina Zurkow. Dale Jamieson, used with permission

CEAP's recently released Aquatic Animals Report 2023 focusing on sentience in aquatic animals is a model of exactly the sorts of comparative and transdisciplinary research that is needed to provide more protection to entire classes of animals. Here's what Dale had to say about this outstanding center.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you establish the Center for Environmental and Animal Protection?

Dale Jamieson: CEAP’s main purpose is to explore the intersection of environmental and animal protection. I’ve been living in this space since I first met you, Marc, back in the early 1980s. For most of my life I’ve been both an environmentalist and an animal protectionist but, back in the day, this was a pretty lonely place to be. At Boulder I was involved in founding what became the environmental studies department, but no one in that community was much interested in the cognitive ethology classes that you and I were teaching. I would go to environmental conferences where prime rib would be featured at the conference dinner.

There has been a lot of progress in bringing these communities together, but the alliances are thinner and more superficial than they may seem. A lot of animal rights activists have gone all in on climate change, but are not really very interested in environmental values that relate to history, culture, aesthetics, or the value of nature. In fact, some animal activists talk about “humane” predator elimination in ways that remind me of the worst excesses of 20th-century environmental mismanagement, though their reasons are different. Once low-methane cows are built and patented, the animal rights/environmentalist alliance on climate change will really begin to fray.

We need to be thinking about what happens next, and that is where CEAP comes in. Animal protection and environmentalism overlap and reinforce each other to a great extent, but they can also come into conflict. This should be no surprise since we live in a sea of value conflicts even when we’re thinking only of humans. Equity and efficiency sometimes conflict. Democracy sometimes leads to tolerance and sometimes it does not. Respecting people’s preferences can promote their happiness, but other times gives them permission to ruin their lives. CEAP’s mission is to explore the synergies between environmental and animal protection, and to discuss the conflicts honestly and resolve them to the extent possible.

MB: How does your group relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

DJ: The best way to think of CEAP is as an interdisciplinary network, focused on a related set of problems, whose nexus is at NYU. I’m a philosopher by disciplinary training and that anchors my outlook, but I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way from other fields and disciplines. Jennifer Jacquet, who has been central to CEAP as deputy director, identifies as an environmental social scientist, and has formal training in fields such as economics and natural resource management. Other NYU CEAP-affiliated faculty have degrees in earth and environmental science, environmental science and engineering, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. What they have in common is their focus on issues at the intersection of environmental and animal protection.

Source: Pia B/Pexels
Source: Pia B/Pexels

In recent years, CEAP has been involved in major projects that include identifying and analyzing live animal markets in the United States and 14 other countries, and in assessing the relevance of scientific information to changing views regarding the protection of aquatic animals. An ongoing area of research concerns the impacts of the global food system on animals and the environment, and identifying the resources that would be required to transition towards plant-centered diets on a global scale. Our work in this area may seem deflationary since grand claims are sometimes made by activists and seen in the media. But we take seriously the data requirements and modeling challenges that need to be overcome in order to reach settled conclusions. We also support researchers from other universities and from NGOs. We have supported projects ranging from an analysis of the environmental and animal welfare implications of China’s dietary recommendations, to the welfare and conservation impacts of alligator wrestling in Florida.

We are committed to publishing our work in refereed academic journals, so we engage with researchers from all over the world. But we also publish research briefs that present our results in a way that we hope is useful to decision-makers, advocates, activists, and anyone who is interested in these issues.

MB: What are some of the major messages you want to put out to people?

DJ: In addition to the overarching goal of contributing to animal and environmental protection, I would like our work to help people understand better what science is, how it works, and what it can do and not do. The areas in which we work are hard to study well, and generally are understudied. There is a tendency for people to want science to be more definitive than it is, and then to use it as a club to beat people over the head into changing their views. But that’s not how things work. Science is more delicate, tentative, and beautiful than that—and the real work of social change comes from broad-based community organizing, talking to your friends and grandparents, and from dedicated individuals putting their bodies on the line. Values underlie everything, including the science that we do.2

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the importance of sentience they will treat nonhumans with more respect and dignity?

DJ: Yes I’m hopeful, but sentience isn’t the only thing that matters. Agency and cognition also matter for how people see animals. All of these dimensions of living (and perhaps some non-living) things should be studied and assessed, and incorporated in the ways that we think about ethics, how we live our lives, and organize our societies. There is some evidence that greater knowledge about animals matters, but what matters more is changes in the heart that lead us to see the world in a more inclusive way.


In conversation with Dr. Dale Jamieson, director of CEAP.

1) Environmental and animal protection originate from the same sources, but this was obscured for much of the late twentieth century as the environmental protection movement focused on species conservation while the animal protection movement focused on the welfare of domestic animals and their use in scientific research. As climate change has become the dominant environmental issue of our time and the animal protection movement has become more focused on animals used for food, these movements are reuniting. This moment calls for the creation of a formal institution that focuses on integrating environmental and animal protection. NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies, home of the Animal Studies Initiative, is the natural site for such an institution.

2) In the last few years research has begun to blossom in the areas in these understudied areas in which we work. Some of it is being done in universities, often in law schools, and some is being done by NGOs, which in some cases have recruited top academic talent. What makes us fundamentally different is that we are an endowed center in the arts and sciences college of a major research university. This allows us to set our own agenda and to pick the problems that we think are important to study, in conversation with communities of activists, advocates, decision-makers, and scholars. We are under no pressure to respond to momentary changes in the media cycle or in funding patterns. We can set our own course and are in it for the long haul.

"Sentience Is More Complicated Than You Think" by Dale Jamieson, February 17, 2022.

CEAP research briefs.

The Happy Dog: Agency, Consent, and Context Are Important; Why Consenting Cats Are Happier Cats.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today