Interview with Philosopher Robert C. Jones: Why Does Animal Sentience Matter?
An Animal Rights Article from


Robert C. Jones
February 2018

To paraphrase and appropriate the sentiments of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, you don’t fight injustice because you’re going to win. You fight injustice because it is unjust.

Interview with Philosopher Robert C. Jones on Charter for Animal Compassion

happy chickens
Image of Rooster Lincoln, Hen Sno-Pea and Cick Luv-Bug from United Poultry Concerns

Charter: Animal sentience has been in the press in the UK recently. Why does animal sentience matter? More specifically, why is animal sentience ethically significant?

RCJ: Sentience—and what I mean by that term are those subjective experiences that have an attractive or aversive quality (such as pain and suffering, pleasure and joy)—is the cornerstone of the vast majority of philosophical theories that work to expand the moral sphere to include nonhuman animals. Regardless of whether one looks to animal suffering, animal agency, animals’ inherent value, or empathy and compassion as the primary basis for increasing the moral status of nonhuman animals, the moral significance of the capacity to experience pain and suffering is the basic common thread that connects all these views.

Beings who possess the capacity to experience pain have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering. Sentience thus confers on these beings at least a minimum level of moral status that, say, an inanimate object does not possess. As philosopher Peter Singer writes, “[i]f a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for disregarding that suffering, or for refusing to count it equally with the like suffering of any other being. But the converse of this is also true. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of enjoyment, there is nothing to take into account”.

For example, consider the differences between a rock and a cat. The salient moral difference is not the fact that the cat is alive and the rock is not, but rather that the cat is sentient and the rock is not. Why is the fact that the cat feels pain ethically significant? The answer to that question involves subjective experience. This is what philosophers like to call the “what-it’s-like” aspect of existence. What’s important here is the fact that kitty even has a perspective, a perspective that includes the ability to feel pain; to have experiences with an aversive quality. From the cat’s perspective, she has interests that matter to her from the inside, for example, interests in her own well-being. Basic notions central to morality itself—concepts like justice, fairness, reciprocity, obligation, empathy, compassion, etc.—depend upon the possession of interests. The cat’s ability to feel pain generates an interest (in not feeling pain), which ground her moral significance.

Charter: Skeptics sometimes suggest that we can never know if another animal is sentient. Can we truly know whether animals can suffer or experience positive emotions such as joy?

RCJ: First of all, the question of whether animals—at least all vertebrates if not many invertebrates—can experience suffering or joy is, at this scientific moment, an absurd non-question. The data supporting the claim that animals experience suffering as well as joy is conclusive. Anyone who doubts this fact should just pick up a copy of Johnathan Balcombe’s Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good.

That said, whether we can really know if animals feel pain or joy is a challenge I sometimes get from skeptics of animal sentience. It’s not infrequent that I am asked, “But how can we ever really know that species X is sentient?” This is what I refer to as the epistemological objection. The epistemological objection is a species of a more general philosophical worry called the problem of other minds. The objection goes like this: Forget about whether I can ever know if a lobster or chimpanzee can experience pain, suffering, or joy. How can I ever know whether you (or any other human being) can experience pain, suffering, or joy? How can we ever really know about the suffering or joy of people, let alone animals?

To answer the epistemological objection, I don’t think it’s necessary to solve the problem of other minds. That’s because I think the objection trades on a certain kind of ambiguity regarding the meaning of ‘know’. When someone claims that one can never really know whether lobsters feel pain, in a sense, they are correct. If what they mean by ‘know’ requires 100% metaphysical certainty, then they are right; in that sense I do not know whether lobsters (or oysters or chimpanzees or other humans) experience pain or pleasure since I lack epistemic access to their inner mental experiences. But that’s not at all what I or anybody else means when we claim that animals have the capacity to experience pain and joy. What we mean when we say this is something like: given what we know about things like human and animal anatomy, physiology, neurophysiology, brain function, biomechanics, etc., it looks from here like animals feel pain and bricks don’t. That’s all we mean. And that’s why the findings of science on these issues can be important if not indispensable.

Charter: Has the science of animal sentience been translated coherently into animal welfare policy and legislation?

RCJ: Again, the scientific consensus on animal sentience is conclusive. In fact, in 2012, a prestigious international group of scientists released the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which concludes “unequivocally” that the weight of scientific evidence indicates that consciousness exists across many species, from humans to invertebrates such as octopuses. Granted, there are a number of philosophical concepts of consciousness, not all of which equate consciousness with sentience, but the basic “what-it’s-like” aspects of conscious experience are so central to the notion, that it’s a safe bet that if consciousness exists across many species, so does sentience.

As for animal welfare policy and legislation, it’s a gross understatement to say that even the most progressive current welfare policies lag behind, are ignorant of, or arbitrarily disregard the science on sentience and cognition. I mean, just last month the U.K. government passed a bill declaring that no animals other than humans (and animal “pets”) have emotions or feelings, including the ability to feel pain. What to say of such stunning systemic malevolent stupidity?

With regard to animals raised as food, in the U.S., the Animal Welfare Act provides protections for some animals in some circumstances, yet farm animals are excluded from its protections. Though some U.S. states have enacted laws banning gestation crates, veal crates, or battery cages, no federal policy currently exists in the U.S. that regulates the treatment of or protects “livestock” from standard (and horrid) animal agriculture practices. The U.S. Humane Methods of Slaughter Act mandates that animals raised as food be made unconsciousness (usually by stunning with a captive bolt gun) prior to slaughter. The Act does not cover the slaughter of rabbits, poultry, fish, or other animals slaughtered for food. The European Union has adopted a similar slaughter policy which mandates that animals be made unconsciousness at the time of killing, but the policy goes further, banning battery cages throughout the E.U. However, as in the U.S., no current E.U. policy regulates the treatment of all living livestock in animal agriculture. As the U.K. vote indicates, who knows what the post-Brexit protections may look like?

The principles underlying the welfare of animals as subjects in biomedical and scientific-industrial research are known as the 3Rs which hold that if animals are to be used in experiments, every effort should be made to Replace them with non-sentient alternatives, Reduce to a minimum the number of animals used, and Refine experiments that use animals so that they minimize pain and distress. A number of countries have passed laws and regulations on the use of animals in scientific research in line with the 3Rs, though no universal standards are in place. In the U.S., Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees are mandated to review research protocols. Though such guidelines are, in principle, widely adopted, regulation of laboratory animals in the U.S. is legislated only by the Animal Welfare Act which ensures animals’ care and treatment as long as such regulation does not interfere with the “design, outlines, or guidelines of actual research or experimentation.” However, the Animal Welfare Act’s definition of ‘animal’ includes only mammals, but excludes birds, rats, mice, horses “not used for research purposes”, and “farm” animals.

Though the British Animal Welfare Act is more inclusive—defining ‘animal’ as “any living vertebrate, other than man”, and providing the same protections for one species of octopus (Octopi vulgaris) that it does for all vertebrates—there exists no scientifically reputable reason to single out this particular species of octopus for protection over all the others. Further, as I said, who knows what the post-Brexit protections may look like?

On the positive side, the Portuguese parliament has recently recognized animals as sentient beings. The most scientifically informed policy comes from New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act which protects not only all vertebrates, but “any octopus, squid, crab, lobster, or crayfish (including freshwater crayfish)” or “any other member of the animal kingdom which is declared from time to time by the Governor-General, by Order in Council, to be an animal for the purposes of this Act” as well as “any mammalian foetus, or any avian or reptilian pre-hatched young, that is in the last half of its period of gestation or development.” However, the New Zealand government also has declared a war on wildlife in an effort to make New Zealand “predator-free” by 2050, illustrating how policies and their exemptions are often designed not with a reduction of animal suffering in mind, but rather with commercial, financial, or political motivations driving policy. In a nutshell, the state of animal welfare policy and legislation vis-à-vis the science of animal sentience is abominable and depressing.

Charter: How could policymakers better engage the research community to rectify these shortcomings?

RCJ: Well, the “research community” is not a monolith. Most “animal researchers” conduct studies and advocate practices that are speciesist and that assume human supremacy and human exceptionalism. That said, any policymaker sincere and earnest in their desire to help create and legislate policies that help nonhuman animals should first educate themselves on the science of animal sentience and cognition. The literature has exploded in the last ten years. They could start by reading anything by Marc Bekoff and by having a look at the new journal Animal Sentience. That’d be a start. Informing oneself about the science of animal sentience is not difficult. Policymakers can find the will to engage with the literature, or they can remain willfully ignorant in the moral and intellectual darkness of human supremacy.

All that said, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 42 billion land animals globally (1.02 billion cattle, 1.2 billion pigs, and 40 billion chickens)—vertebrates who we know with certainty are sentient—suffer and die for human consumption. Yet, despite legislative welfare regulations, these animals suffer unspeakable pain, suffering, and death during their nasty, brutish, and short lives. Better science, near-certainty regarding sentience, or increased welfare legislation alone will not end the savagery that is visited upon billions of animals under cover of speciesism and human exceptionalism and human supremacy. That task requires transcending our own bad faith by untelling the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning and necessity of animal pain and suffering. As my friend John Sanbonmatsu writes, “[b]y telling ourselves that we have no ‘choice’ but to kill and to consume animals, thereby refusing responsibility for our participation in terror, we undermine our claims to being the kind of being that alone can exercise autonomous judgment.”

Charter: What role do philosophers have to play in shifting popular attitudes towards animals?

RCJ: In general, no one cares what philosophers have to say about anything! No, being serious, it is a philosopher, Peter Singer, who ushered in the modern animal rights movement with his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Philosophers like Singer, Lori Gruen, John Sanbonmatsu, Michael Tye, and others actively engage the public on animal rights issues through the popular press. These philosophers and others like them are uniquely trained and positioned to articulate the connections between the moral status of animals and those cultural and systemic practices that involve injustice, oppression, institutional violence, domination, and commodification of our sentient nonhuman kin. Animal rights philosophers have an obligation to engage these issues both in the academy (where human supremacy rules the day even in the most “progressive” of academic departments) and in the popular culture through popular-press publications, internet videos, lectures, and interviews such as this. I’ve been at this game for 15 years now and, as much as I want to be optimistic, there seem to be more dark days ahead for social justice movements, among which I count the animal rights movement. However, we have no choice but to continue the struggle, despite the long odds of “winning”. To paraphrase and appropriate the sentiments of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, you don’t fight injustice because you’re going to win. You fight injustice because it is unjust.

Return to Animal Rights Articles