Sentience is part of the sense perception that has advanced to a point of view or state of being that is understood as part of evolution. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, sentience is “ The quality of being able to experience feelings” along with a consciousness of emotion, which relates to animal welfare . For many years’, humans have believed they were the only creatures on Earth that posses’ sentience, but research has lead to the conclusion that many other animals, and mammals especially have sentience. This concept discussion has been debated in a philosophical conversation as far back as can be found, the ability for animals to feel pain, suffering and joy. Possessing emotion alone is not sentience, but that along with an awareness of their own emotion, and those around them. Possessing a self-awareness of emotion, and having sympathy towards others through what humans refer to as sympathy and empathy. Descartes’ view which contradicted sentience, believed that animals were automatons and incapable of felling, but it was still highly debated despite his disbelief. An easy example of where this can be seen in everyday life, are in many western households that have cats and/or dogs who often can recognize when their owners are sad or happy, attempt to interact with humans in a positive manner, or even more simply care for their young beyond an instinctual behaviour of survival. Through further research animals’ ability to possess sentience could change the role they have in society and the way humans interact with them in the future. The following analyse of the concept of sentience through a brief history of the pioneers of sentience, critiques about the concept and discussion of a case study, it will exemplify the concept of sentience as it might be used in ethics, it is undeniable that it exist in many animals.
A brief history of sentience in animals allows readers to better understand the development of environmental ethics and animal rights. The idea of animals having sentience was only accepted by philosophers and scientists during the Enlightenment in the 19th century. Previously these traits were considered to be only possessed by human beings, but the 19th century characterised by the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin shaped the way both scientists and philosophers understand animals. Even before the past century when it was expanded upon, Darwin himself spoke about the capacity for animals to have emotions and were capable of a self-consciousness “similar and different to humans” such as dolphins and elephants . In the last thirty years the interest in animals’ sentience has grown dramatically. Scientist through research then coined the branch of psychology known as behavouralism, which lead to the distinction of consciousness in animals. In the 20th century this philosophy expanded to North America, where a theory based on feelings of fear, maternal tenderness and sexual desire were considered as “emotion” and could be understood through behaviour . Some North American pioneers of this concept began as psychologists, McDougall also pioneered behaviourist theory that “…emotions were what drives behaviour” which further expanded the acceptance of animal sentience. In the UK, Ruth Harrison wrote a book published in 1960 that influenced the European agricultural industry, and intensive farming in relation and sentience with ethical farming. Her book Animal Machines: published in 1964 opened the discussion of factory farming into the public sphere and brought to light the suffering of animals in the agricultural industry. The book eventually lead to Britain’s first legislation passed in protection of animal welfare called the 1968 Agriculture (miscellaneous Provision) Act and later The European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes in 1976. Through her life she worked as a council member for several conservation and environmental committees in Britain and Europe. Her work with animals won many awards, such as the Order of the British Empire which is given to people making a huge difference in their line of work . She died in 2000, and never completed her sequels to Animal Machines. The difficulty with this concept many scientist are attempting to understand is how we might measure sentience, how to identify those that poses sentience from those that do not.
This concept of animals with sentience has contributed to the discussion of animal’s welfare. Welfare refers to the mental and physical health of the animals and must consider the animals feeling as part of the mental health and potential stress put upon the animals in captivity. Feeling became a necessary part of animal welfare in the 1980’s, which became an issue because behavioural scientists were unsure how this might be measured. Scientist decided later that it did not matter if the animals were feeling the same an a human, only whether they feel negatively or positively based on indications of indirect means. Duncan brought up the topic of consciousness versus cognitive mental functions, cognitive functions are a mental process whereas consciousness is a mental awareness of ones self. The understanding of animals’ cognitive function then leads to interesting scientific inquiries of . Can an animal learn to avoid a frightening stimulus? Can an animal remember a rewarding experience?”. The main issue with sentience is on a scientific level, of how to demonstrate and prove sentience. Science seeks to analyse, positivist theory believe that it is based off of quantifiable facts. They the data to be testable, but due to lack of communication between humans and animals/mammals, there is no way to know for certain what an animal might think or feel. Sentience is considered anthropomorphic, which means it has or has been given human characteristics, such as having personal phenomena that is considered a flaw in relation to science. It has been considered a flaw because it is hard to assign human characteristics to animals when all that can be identified is through their actions and behaviour. Their emotions are unquantifiable, but we can use actions and behaviour to interpret their emotions. These are assumptions about animals’ emotions and thinking, but this is also based over historical in many human cultures where animals such as dogs, cats, and horses are considered members of the family and contributes to the development of science. Anthropomorphism is a driving force of scientific discovery, it is based off childhood curiosity and science should never be free of it. Another critique is commonly based on the ability for a species to posses cognitive abilities, which refer to their mental ability to process and store information, whereas sentience is a “capacity of an animal to have feelings, and to be aware of a variety of states and sensations such as pleasure and suffering” . Possessing cognitive ability and possessing sentience are different and one is not required to have the other, but are considered to be linked. This then leads to more complicated science behind animals’ brains, and debates between psychological understand of cerebral cortex and their neurologic capabilities. Altogether the size of an animals’ brain (cerebral cortex) is considered a poor indicator to animals sentience, using cognitive abilities to measure sentience can endanger animal welfare, based on those who do not possess the same capability to understand and process the same information but have the capacity to feel emotion. Although we cannot use exact science to measure and test animals’ ability to possess sentience by analysing behaviour and interactions with both humans and non-humans within their species often in social settings to be sympathetic/empathetic to other, called secondary emotion.
During summer of 2018, one case study arises that exemplifies both primary and secondary emotions through behavior of a mother Orca Whale, her baby, and her pod. The mother Orca, referred to as J35, carried her lifeless calf with her for 17 days, off the coast of Victoria. The debate of emotion over instinct was of great discussion in scientific areas of study, were their actions based on instinct or grief of her lost child? Using behaviour is the only way under this circumstance, to gage the emotion and thought experiences by these Orca whales. Emotions are immeasurable even if animals had the ability to community with humans, their would be no certainty that it’s explanation would be enough. Humans whom are capable of communicating often have a hard time understanding the complexity of emotion, due to the facts that for most humans, emotions are not felt individually but through a mixture of different ones. Unfortunately, we must use the assumption that animals feel emotion similarly to humans, because at this point in time there is no other way to understand them. The actions of the mother orca, J35 is similarly understood through the lens of sympathy or for some individuals, empathy to the loss of a child. This is what has been previously referred to as primary emotion, the way the individual experience emotion, in this case the mothers grief for the lose of her child which lived for less then an hour. J35’s pod is one of multiple endangered pods off the coast between British Columbia and Washington, her birth was the first successful birth in three years (Mapes, 2019). Orca whale pregnancies gestation period can last as long as 17 months and are born directly into the water, often stay with their pods, which is made up mostly of family members (N.p., 2019). This species referred to commonly as Orca/Killer whales, but are actually a species of dolphin, whom are highly social creature that rely on their pod, and their community for collective survival, commonly compared to human’s social activity. Decreasing whale population in the wild, and the birth of J35’s baby poses the question of a pattern for scientific discovery, but her emotion, despite being unquantifiable should be of no question. While it has been seen in nature for many species within the dolphin family for carry lost members with them in a state of mourning, this period of 17 days has never before been recorded. This behaviour being termed as “tour of grief” scientist worried might threaten the life of J35 herself, but thankfully there were no signs of harm . The endangerment of her life is the opposite of what instinct is defined by, for survival. Her behaviour to which goes against her instinct of survival was one example of how this behaviour was based off emotion and not instinct. According to The Seattle Post, on the American side of the boarder where J35’s pod is very well known, scientist suspect her survival for almost three weeks while carrying her deceased baby is due to her family and pod. Other members had been seen staying by her side and taking turn watching her as she traveled slower behind the pod. This is what is considered secondary emotion, or empathy, the ability to recognize and understand not only the ones personal emotions, but the capacity to understand others’ emotions. In this case the rest of the pod referred to as pod J understood the grief of J35 as a loss to not just the mother but the whole pod since having no successful live births for the span of three years. They took turns caring for J35, potentially at sacrifice to their own well being for the short time. This should be included in understanding Orca whales capacity to care for each other at risk to themselves out of compassion or sympathy. Keeping the mother company as she travelled slower behind the pod, potentially caring for her as she was most likely unable to hunt for herself while carrying the baby’s body. For her to carry the body she would have to drop it while she took a few breaths before diving back to grab the carcass and continue this for the duration of her “tour of grief”. Many species of dolphin and porpoise have similar behaviors and social connection to their pods and connections to each other which allows them to encompass both primary and secondary emotion which demonstrates their sentience.
To conclude, sentience has become increasingly evident in a number of animals and mammals that contributes which contributes to animal ethics as shown in this case study, despite the critics of emotion being unquantifiable, that formed over time by scientific and philosophical minds alike. Many mammal and especially aquatic mammals live in social units that care for one another beyond their instinct, their behavior indicates they possess emotion both primary and secondary, to others within their social community. Another example of a land mammal are elephants, which have been studied for years by many scientists over centuries. They also travel in social groups referred to as herd, made up of female and calf members, and the mothers share responsibility for caring for all the young . If we understand the world through understanding that humans alone are not the only species to experience emotional consciousness, we can apply this to animal welfare and environmental ethics to improve quality of life for animals in captivity and how we treat animals in the wild. Humans feel emotion and it is one of the most powerful motivations of life and recognizing this motivator in others can improve all forms of life and change or improve the anthropocentrism view of the world.