The Precautionary Principle And Sentience
In a world that is, in many places, in the midst of a debate over the ethics of consuming animals, the concept of sentience is a key factor. While major inroads have been made in the general public’s understanding of the sentience of mammals such as pigs, cows, goats, and sheep, and even birds like chickens, the sentience of fishes, invertebrates, and insects is still hotly debated.
Here at Faunalytics, we have looked at the sentience of fishes, their different cognitive and behavioral abilities, and even what the public thinks of their sentience. It’s a contentious issue and while many scientists and researchers are still working hard to establish a base of evidence for the sentience of these “lower order” animals, philosophers and ethicists are working other angles. In this paper, we have the argument for a “precautionary principle” applied to fishes, insects, and invertebrates, that would, by its very nature, slow or halt many of the abuses we currently perpetrate on them.
Interestingly, the paper does not seek to argue for or against the presence of sentience in these non-human animals. Instead, the central argument here is “aimed to support actions to guard against the possibility that they may be.” However, where other discussions of this precautionary approach may focus on rather weak premises, this paper sets forth an argument “focused on character rather than immediate action-guidance.”
While much of the existing literature around this debate focuses advocating for specific actions, the paper argues that “that argument has been found plausible when the complexity and ‘price’ of such precautions appear low.” The authors note that this is because “precaution cuts both ways.” In other words, taking precaution on one count might have a substantial cost, and we could be “spending that attention” on another issue. In some cases, then, arguing for specific actions may create an either/or dichotomy in which people choose to continue to exploit such non-human animals based on their wants or needs. Advocates’ challenge is to get around this.
Ultimately the paper provides animal advocates with a strong position from which to advocate for fishes and other “lower order” animals. Rather than continuing on a path of abuse and destruction, reflection and consideration is necessary. If fishes and invertebrates are sentient, and animal advocates believe strongly that they are, than the actions we subject them to are egregious and need to stop immediately.