Taking Animal Sentience Seriously

Do animals feel? Stevan Harnad reflects on his fight for animal protection.

Posted Mar 22, 2020

 Gundula Vogel/Pixabay
What, when, and how do nonhuman animals feel?
Source: Gundula Vogel/Pixabay

In late 2015, a new journal was founded that dedicated itself to the investigation of animal sentience: that is, the capacity of animals to experience subjective states such as pleasure or pain. Its official title: Animal Sentience.

What follows is part two of my interview with Dr. Stevan Harnad on the first four years of Animal Sentience. Click here for part one.

Walter Veit: How did you personally become interested in animal sentience and Welfare?

Stevan Harnad: I have been a vegetarian since age 17 and concerned about animal welfare all my life, but vegan only since age 65 (for which I am profoundly, and eternally, ashamed). 

“Sentience" means the capacity to feel. And being able to feel means being able to be hurt. We all know what it feels like to be hurt. Humans can also describe what they feel, through language. Nonhuman animals can communicate in many ways, but they do not have language, so they cannot tell us verbally whether and what they feel. Studying animals’ behavior, their ecology, and their evolution can help us infer, indirectly, whether and what they feel. (Studying their brains can help too, but this is much more problematic, because it may involve hurting them—although there are now new noninvasive methods too [Cook et al. 2018].)

Finding out whether and what others feel is called the “other minds problem” [see also Harnad 2016]. It is a philosophical problem, if we seek certainty rather than just high probability as in the rest of science, because the only feelings we can observe with certainty are our own. In others, we can only observe what they do (including what they say) and what their brains do. But the other-minds problem for other humans is not worth worrying about practically (except in the case of anesthesia and irreversible coma). People feel, and we know pretty much when and what they feel.

With nonhuman animals, it’s another story. A matter of probability, again, but with probability decreasing with bodily, behavioral, neural and phylogenetic distance from our own. For detecting pain and suffering this is profoundly important, bioethically as well as scientifically. For the other, affectively neutral forms of sentience (sensory and cognitive states) it is important biologically as well as culturally, to learn what other species can do, think, and feel.

Walter Veit: Where do you see the field of animal sentience research in 10 years from now?

Stevan Harnad: We will know a lot more in 10 more years, that’s for sure. I hope we will also put it into practice. For that, I hope the multidisciplinary communication and interaction made possible by Animal Sentience’s Open Peer Commentary service will make a substantive contribution. We already know a lot about mammals and birds (though ethically, we are not yet putting it into practice). The cognitive and affective capacities and states of lower vertebrates and invertebrates are the next sentient frontier.

 Stevan Harnad
Source: Stevan Harnad

Walter Veit: Let's hope so! In the meantime, Andrew (Rowan) said [in our parallel interview] that you are currently "battling in Quebec with the provincial government who included wording on animal sentience in a recent law." Could you tell us more about your efforts?

Stevan Harnad: Perhaps less “battling with” than “informing and advising." In 2015, Quebec adopted a new law according to which nonhuman animals are no longer just material property: They are sentient beings with species-specific biological imperatives that can no longer be compromised. We hope that Animal Sentience will be a rich source of evidence about what these biological imperatives are for each species, and how they need to be accommodated—evidence that will be useful not only to scientists and to those who interact with animal beings, but in court as well as in policy-making, not just in Quebec, of course, but worldwide. Quebec’s new law, with which few would disagree, is just a good model and starting point for reform.

Walter Veit: Let's say you could freely design animal protection laws for 2040. What would your ideal scenario look like?

Stevan Harnad: ... click here for our upcoming part three.

Stevan Harnad is a professor of cognitive science at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and McGill University, and professor emeritus of cognitive science at the University of Southampton. A Hungarian-born cognitive scientist, his research is on category learning, the evolution of language, and consciousness. In 1978, he founded Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal of Open Peer Commentary, and remained editor until 2002. Since 2016, he is editor of Animal Sentience, launched in 2015 by the Institute of Science and Policy of the Humane Society of the United States. A vegan, Harnad is increasingly active in animal welfare, animal rights, and animal law.

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