Analyzing The Value Of Sentience Legislation
The scientific community widely accepts that many nonhuman animals are sentient beings who experience cognitive states like consciousness and emotion. In response, some countries have enacted legislation recognizing animal sentience. This legislation signifies changing attitudes toward animals, but is its value merely symbolic? In other words, is it an effective way to improve the lives of animals living in those countries?
In this report, researchers from Animal Ask analyze the existing literature on sentience legislation as well as case studies and expert interviews to determine the extent to which it may positively impact animals’ lives. Their goal is to help animal advocates decide whether campaigning for sentience laws is worth prioritizing over other types of advocacy.
The researcher begins by identifying two broad ways of interpreting sentience legislation, the first being that it’s merely symbolic. The law may state the scientific fact that animals are sentient beings, but this alone has little practical value. For example, the Animal Welfare Act of New Zealand recognizes the sentience of vertebrates and some invertebrates, but it also states that this recognition does not impact animals’ rights. According to the author, this means that the legislation has failed to shift away from treating animals as property and won’t necessarily encourage positive impacts on their lives.
However, there are ways in which sentience legislation can have practical value. For example, its lack of immediate consequences means that countries are more likely to accept it, making it easier for animal advocates to achieve tractable wins for animals once the legislation is in place. It can even promote public acceptance of animals that many people do not consider sentient like octopuses and lobsters. Finally, one country’s enactment of sentience legislation can set a precedent for other countries to follow.
The author explores the actual impacts of sentience legislation from examples in the European Union (E.U.), the U.K., New Zealand, the U.S., and Québec. They find that most cases of the legislation have been largely symbolic. For example, the E.U.’s animal sentience legislation did not prevent the mass slaughter of cows during the hoof-and-mouth pandemic of the early 2000s. And while the U.K. seems to be making progress by recognizing the sentience of vertebrates, decapod crustaceans, and cephalopods as well as calling for an independent animal sentience committee, the first head of this committee is a farmer rather than a neutral expert on animal sentience and welfare.
However, some examples of animal sentience legislation have had practical benefits for animals. One example is in the U.S. state of Oregon, which enacted legislation recognizing animal sentience in 2013. The Oregon Supreme Court has used this legislation in several of its rulings, in some cases increasing punishments for animal abusers. It has also protected people who rescue animals from neglect, noting that animals are sentient beings.
One concern is that sentience legislation can be a form of “humanewashing.” By enacting symbolic legislation, countries can use the language of sentience to hide the reality that animals are still suffering. A second, related concern is that the legislation does not protect animals from exploitation and killing. In other words, countries may interpret it as allowing exploitative practices to continue as long as people minimize animals’ suffering and kill them as painlessly as possible. A third concern is that the legislation is too vague to be effective. If sentience legislation does not clearly define sentience, countries will not necessarily interpret it in a way that helps animals.
Overall, the author suggests that sentience legislation may be a useful tool for changing attitudes about the moral status of animals, but advocates will need to continue working for practical changes even after it’s been established. One way to do this is to call out gaps between a country’s values, as reflected in its sentience legislation, and its actions, as reflected in its animal welfare practices. Another way is to pressure courts to interpret the law such that its rulings bring these values and actions into greater alignment.