Misadventures of Sentience: Animals and the Basis of Equality

Animals (Basel). 2019 Nov 29;9(12):1044. doi: 10.3390/ani9121044.


This paper aims to put in question the all-purposes function that sentience has come to play in animal ethics. In particular, I criticize the idea that sentience can provide a sound basis of equality, as has been recently proposed by Alasdair Cochrane. Sentience seems to eschew the standard problems of egalitarian accounts that are based on range properties. By analysing the nature of range properties, I will show that sentience cannot provide such a solution because it is constructed as a sui generis range property. After criticizing the approaches seeking to ground animals' equal status, I turn to Singer's principle of equal consideration of interests. Despite its seeming non-controversiality, I argue that it cannot do without referring to the moral status of a being in order to determine the weight of a being's interests. Moreover, it outlines a weak egalitarian basis because it relies on the presumption of equality of interests in virtue of our lack of knowledge of the weight of individuals' interests. I conclude in a more positive tone by arguing that, irrespective of the troubles of range property egalitarianism, animal ethics can rely on other normative resources to defend the cause of animals.

Keywords: Alasdair Cochrane; Peter Singer; basis of equality; equal consideration of interests; equality in animal ethics; proportionality; sentience.