New paper defends sentience as basis for ethics

by | Feb 7, 2024 | Story Ideas | 0 comments

February 2024

Our moral values system tells us that hurting other living beings or treating them without respect is bad. It makes the world worse. But why, precisely? How significant is consciousness for our ethical and moral obligations?

Most philosophers (and others) adhere to the view that moral status is contingent on the degree of consciousness and sentience. But where do we draw a line, if at all? Are fish sentient? Bees? Earthworms?

“For all living organisms there is a non-zero probability of sentience and consciousness, and we cannot justify excluding beings from consideration on the basis of uncertainty of their sentience”, writes Kai M.A. Chan in journal Environmental Values (Chan 2011).

According to the Gaia hypothesis, the whole planet is sentient.

In recent years, objections to “sentientism” have been put forward from a physicalist viewpoint, which says that since we cannot determine sentience and consciousness, they cannot be proper bases for moral status.

“We should face up to this probable insignificance of phenomenal consciousness and move towards an ethic without sentience”, Francois Kammerer wrote in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Kammerer 2022). The proposed alternative is an ethic based on what beings seem to want and not want, and on values we have agreed on.

A new scientific article by German philosopher Leonard Dung defends the classic, and likely intuitive, view. Dung leans on the premise that consciousness is nonphysical, intrinsic and nonreducible: “Indeed, most think that consciousness is very significant for ethics.”

“Physicalism gives us no reason to expect that introspection is unreliable with respect to the normative relevance of consciousness … sentientism should remain the default view on the grounds of value and moral status”, Dung argues.

These deliberations are also increasingly relevant to the conversation on artificial intelligence.

“Answering these questions appears crucial because we take the answer to entail a view regarding the moral status of these creatures – and thereby regarding the behavior we should adopt with respect to them. The same could be said of the nascent field of machine ethics (robot ethics, computer ethics)”,  according to Kammerer.

Anders Bolling

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