View Full Version : Sentience

Aug 26th, 2013, 12:58 AM
Having looked up various definitions of "sentience", I'm still unclear. It seems to be a category of attributes, including hedonic capacity and perhaps some level of awareness or experience. Anyone care to shed some light?

Some related questions include: Are the attributes which form a part of "sentience" necessary &/or sufficient for rights? How do we know that a creature has them?

Aug 26th, 2013, 05:38 AM
As I understand it, sentience at a minimum implies some sort of SELF-awareness, even in the most limited sense. For example, some plants can be observed to respond to external stimuli - venus fly traps, for example - but that doesn't mean that scientists think they FEEL as we understand that word relating to touch, it means they exhibit a chemical response. Similarly, we don't say that clouds 'cry' (or experience grief) when we observe precipitation. We are witnessing another chemical response.

It is generally understood that sensation requires rudimentary sensory organs, some sort of nervous system to relay messages between an organism's parts and arguably a brain. I say arguably because we are unsure how some less-sophisticated organisms work and what these are capable of. There is still uncertainty about the nature of consciousness, which is possibly just a collection of more complex chemical responses.

Some people use the words 'sentience' and 'self-awareness' interchangeably. Some insist that organisms need to possess certain features and exhibit higher order behaviours (and mental faculties) to classify as sentient. This includes the hedonistic capacity and experience you mention.

As this relates to rights, some believe that certain features are either necessary or sufficient for the attribution of rights. For example, the rights theory of Tom Regan which is my go-to position is that being 'the subject of a life' is a sufficient condition for the possession of rights. This means that possession of the properties he describes without a doubt demand the recognition of rights by moral agents, but it is up to individuals to decide which living things fall 'under the line' so to speak. We should give most animals the benefit of the doubt.

Aug 28th, 2013, 03:26 PM
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Fiver. Tom Regan's position is generally my "go-to" too, although I don't entirely agree with everything he argues, and it has been a while since I read his Case for AR. Can anyone explain Gary Francione's definition of sentience? Doesn't he use sentience as the threshold for rights? Sorry, I know I really should read more for myself, but I can't much at the moment - Much appreciated if anyone would like to enlighten. :)

Aug 28th, 2013, 05:22 PM
Francione seems to think that Regan's criteria (even as a sufficient condition) is too restrictive and human-centric with regards to mental faculties. Until he clarifies, it doesn't seem like an exaggeration to say that 'sentience' to him is mere perception of self (which could be touch and nothing else?). He said he disagrees with Regan's response to his 'lifeboat' case, but in light of comments he makes in his own book (Intro to AR: Your child or the dog) I don't understand why (?).

It's been a while (lol) since I read Francione's book, but I remember that his arguments against vivisection reduced to 'it doesn't work' or 'it's not the most efficient way'. Whereas, Regan says 'that's no certainty' and 'it doesn't matter if it helps, it's wrong!'.

You might search for articles about the authors and 'sentience' on his website.


Nov 20th, 2013, 11:47 PM
I know this is old, but sentience and self-awareness are two COMPLETELY separate things. Sentient beings, like the animals humans eat, can feel pain and pleasure but are not aware of their existence. Humans, monkeys, dolphins, and a few other animals are considered to be self-aware because they understand they are alive.

If you want to know how one can determine if such a species is self-aware or merely sentient, see: mirror test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test).

Nov 21st, 2013, 11:20 AM

Perhaps the contention surrounding usage of these terms stems from the limitations of language to describe consciousness? How can one see, eat, feel pain or pleasure without being aware that there is a 'self' to which these things are happening and of which the 'self' is aware? How do we understand that we are alive? Do we need to philosophise, or can we merely experience that we are alive? Could I not fail the mirror test and still be aware of 'my' hunger? 'My' desire to obtain food?

Note the 'Criticisms' section in the link you posted about the 'mirror test'. Without disputing your terminology, I think that most people would say that animals are self-aware, without arguing that they can self-recognise or think deeply about the nature of death.

Nov 21st, 2013, 11:36 AM
Thanks for your reply _evelyn! I'm as interested as ever in this question. I take it that you're making the distinction between (1) animals with sentience and not self awareness, and (2) animals with sentience and self-awareness?

The mirror test is a good one, although not perfect, as is common for tools of psychological measurement. Isn't it about awareness of oneself as a being with a body? Does that necessarily involve understanding that one is alive? It reminds me of that Buddhist saying about beings fearing death and therefore should not be harmed.

I take your point fiver that more animals are self-aware than just those who pass the test. I think it was Tom Regan who gave a good argument about the necessity of awareness of one's own body in order to navigate in the world. I forget how it goes.

Feb 6th, 2014, 11:32 PM
Regarding self-consciousness and the mirror test, being capable of theory of mind - the ability to attribute mental states to other individuals - is another clue towards consciousness. A species of jay being watched by another jay while hiding food will return later to move it outside of the gaze of the potential thief, but only if it has stolen food itself before, suggesting it is modeling the beliefs/knowledge and intention of the other bird based on its own experience and likely behaviour (putting itself in the other jay's shoes I suppose.)

I personally tend to think of sentience as simply having qualitative experience and that higher-order thought/self-consciousness isnt necessary for this.

If anyone knows, I would be interested to know how sentience is defined where it is used in the Treaty of Amsterdam, where EU states must 'pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals' as sentient beings.

Opus 32
Sep 16th, 2014, 06:23 AM
Subjective experience. That term, I have found, is the best for describing what actually matters in terms of ethics.

It basically refers to the ability to have experiences. The word "consciousness" gets mired in a lot of vague language around things like the ability to be aware that you have a self, and to have an understanding of yourself as an individual. Being able to understand the concept of self is pretty irrelevant in terms of ethics. I don't care if an animal cannot recognize itself in the mirror. I care about whether or not it can undergo a negative subjective experience.

Clueless Git
Sep 17th, 2014, 01:40 AM
According to Gitster's Concise Dikshunry ...

Sentience: 1. A quality you can be sure you have if you don't want to be something else's dinner.
2. A quality you can be sure that anything else lacks if it doesn't want to be your dinner.