Sentience, Morality and Veganism

Following my post last week, questioning the consciousness of newborns, I exchanged a number of tweets with a professor of developmental psychology, who made the interesting observation that,

The points you make also, paradoxically, show why conscious awareness should not be a criterion for personhood.
(and that is a whole bag of worms, potentially, for topics like animal rights theory, “fetal personhood” bills, etc). Good stuff

So if you don’t need to be conscious to be regarded as a person, what criteria should be used? What about someone in a persistent vegetative state for example? I put this to my newly acquainted professor, who responded as follows:

huge question. I can argue several different sides of it! 🙂 I have different personal vs. political views. Nutshell: sentience

She then continued:

I’m a vegan b/c I don’t think I have any greater moral right to eat a cow than a dog. (& I have adequate plant food options)
I think for humans, birth is the only dividing line for *legal* personhood that makes any sense. Moral personhood: diff matter
PVS and late-term abortions are tricky, but we can consider someone a person while still giving them limited legal status.

All of this seemed to strike a chord with my own views…except for the bit about veganism.
Now, I’ve always considered myself a fairly “moral” person, in that I usually try to act in ways that maximise well-being and/or minimise suffering for other sentient beings. But, I also eat meat. And except on the rare occasions when I run into vegetarians or vegans, I’m quite happy about this.

The above definition of morality, taken from Sam Harris’s insightful book, The moral Landscape,  is the only one I’ve found so far which makes any sense to me. If an act has no impact on the wellbeing or suffering of sentient beings, there can surely be no argument for its morality or lack thereof. Of course, many look to the bible or Qur’anic texts for moral guidance, but with all the xenophobic, genocidal vengeance and retribution, subjugation of women’s rights and tolerance of slavery, to name just a few of the less savoury moral examples on offer, other criteria must obviously still be applied in selecting  which bits to follow.

Others will argue that morality is all relative and that we shouldn’t interfere or condemn foreign cultural practices, just because they would be unacceptable in our own society. Actually, Yes, I think we should! Take  for example, genital mutilation – so-called female circumcision. This barbaric custom, still practiced in several parts of the world is simply WRONG. No matter how much a culture is anchored in the bronze age by unshakeable belief in the infallibility of sacred texts, subjecting young girls to this brutal, dangerous and pointless suffering should be universally condemned and eradicated as soon as possible.

Of course, many moral issues are less clear-cut than this last example, but that doesn’t mean there is no right answer. As our understanding of science and particularly neuroscience increases, so does our ability to accurately estimate how much various animals (including Homo sapiens) might be suffering at any given time. Our ability to determine the relative morality of different actions on this basis, is not, and may never be infallible, but it seems to me, the most logical place to start.

So back to whether it is ethical for humans to consume meat and other animal products. For vegans, it is simple. If it’s sentient, we should not consume, enslave or exploit it in any way at all.

So how do we define sentience? Wikipedia gives the following definition:

Sentience is the ability to feelperceive, or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Eighteenth century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think (“reason“) from the ability to feel (“sentience”). In modern western philosophy, sentience is the ability to have sensations or experiences (described by some thinkers as “qualia“).

Most people imply from this that sentience requires at least some sort of nervous system, if not primitive brain structures. However, if we take a less species-centric view and look just at the ability to feel, perceive and have sensations, a strong argument can be made for some plants being sentient also. Although they may not have neurons, many plants use complex hormonal and even electrical pathways allowing them to move, hunt, defend themselves and communicate with one another. Obvious examples which no doubt remind us of our own animalistic responses are the Venus flytrap whose minute hairs trigger the closing of the trap when touched twice within 20 secs by unsuspecting insect prey, or the Mimosa pudica (touch-me-not) which shrinks away from touch as a defence mechanism. Some plants, such as pale jewelweed have even been found to exhibit kin recognition with different growth habits depending on the species of their neighbours. Although I wouldn’t go quite so far as this article in claiming this latter finding represents “social” behaviour, it nevertheless seems to strengthen the case for plant sentience…or at least further muddy the distinction between plants and animals.

A question I’ve always found enlightening when considering the morality of an act (and which incidentally destroys any argument for  morality being a god-given absolute) is “When did this behaviour become wrong?”

Among humans, infanticide, at least in recent history (Abraham/Isaac notwithstanding) is pretty much universally rejected as immoral. But is it just as wrong for a lion to kill the existing cubs of a new mate? What about a chimpanzee? The animal kingdom is full of examples of such behaviour, so at what point in the evolution of our species did it suddenly become wrong to kill another’s offspring?

The answer must lie somewhere in our starting to live in social groups. Our sense of morality must have emerged and evolved as we began to live together in ever larger societies. And we need only look back a few hundred years to see how much, with increased understanding of our non-unique place in the tree of life, this sense of morality continues to evolve to the present day.

Perhaps, as this trend continues, the tide will turn, and the majority of humans will, like my vegan professor acquaintance, become vegan. Many prominent vegan activists refer to themselves as abolitionists, drawing intentional parallels to the comparatively recent change in our attitudes to human slavery. Their point being that if something once as widely accepted as slavery can become so universally condemned within such a comparatively short space of time, then the same can happen to our attitudes towards animal exploitation.  Certainly, with the rise in popularity of “free-range”, “organically farmed”, “responsibly sourced”, labelling on our produce, such a transition is not inconceivable.

For me, while on a certain level, I understand the vegan argument, my conscience generally remains clear, providing suffering was avoided in the chain of events which brought the animal or its derivatives to my plate. Is this just a case of choosing to ignore an inconvenient truth? Perhaps, but I think it’s more than that.

What about you? Are you a vegan or vegetarian? Do you eat meat with a clear conscience or is it ever-so-slightly a guilty pleasure? Please feel free to use the comment section below to share your thoughts and reactions to this post.



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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. Hey. Thanks I am researching a bit because I want to write about plant sentience I am a shamanic herbalist with fascination for expanded/new science.
    I eat meat, have given death to goats on our farm. Love raw milk and cheese and have no guilt only gratitude.
    Because I teach people to communicate with plants, I see this incredible expansive consciousness in all food and I think that is why eating a diverse diet makes us open to new ways of thinking.

  2. Hi Simon,
    I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago;long before that I had seen, in India and elsewhere, worm infested carcasses that revolted me, and heard stories about the inhumane way that animals destined to be food for humans were and are treated, – and so on. I learned that meat is not a really good source of protein, that milk is intended for baby cows, not humans,
    .That raising food crops to feed animals instead of humans is not a good use of land -and so on and on. . . .
    Whilst I can remember that I once enjoyed the scent of bacon being fried for breakfast I now find such smells – unpleasant at best,
    I could go on much longer in this vein but I am probably boring you already – but you did ask!
    If I haven’t used up all my available space yet let me add my praise to the heaps that you have been getting for Connected. A wonderful first novel which I could almost fully understand
    even though I know little of science (but yours seemed convincing)and my computer literacy is only moderate. Moreover I shall be 92 years old in a few weeks and read very few contemporary novels these days, I find most of them boring or badly written or both. Not Connected!!
    Ron Napier,
    Chapala, Mexico.

    1. Not boring at all, Ron 🙂 Thanks for sharing your feelings on this and thanks even more for your kind words regarding Connected.

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