I’ve written several times about the shortcomings of strict definitions of veganism. In particular, my concerns have focused on the problem of excluding animal foods where suffering is absent. I’ve also discussed how animal-free foods which nevertheless cause suffering — human and nonhuman (e.g., palm oil) — are typically considered vegan; this is partly what inspires people to claim that vegans care about animals more than humans. In addition, I’ve argued that veganism irrationally suggests a moral equivalence between the elephant and the ant.
I wasn’t the first to complain about these shortcomings. Sentientism, which “grants degrees of moral consideration to all sentient beings,” as summarized by their Wikipedia page dates back to 18th century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (Can they suffer?), but its modern-day champion is Jamie Woodhouse, who boldly argues that sentientism “could save the world.”
In contrast to speciesism, which typically involves granting moral consideration to humans to the exclusion of nonhumans, sentientism recognizes that evolution has instilled a distribution of cognitive capacities across species. Instead of humans being uniquely capable of suffering, sentientists recognize that suffering is on a spectrum, with relatively simple creatures at one end, and humans (likely) at the other. The species in-between must be granted moral consideration in accordance with their ability to suffer.
This seems to take care of my three gripes with strict definitions of veganism, which all vegans tend to get lumped under, in one fell swoop. For one, it focuses solely on experience, tossing away the old veganism’s animal vs. no animal heuristic, opening the door for cultured meats, lab-grown cow’s milk, and the like. It also doesn’t let us off the hook for merely eschewing animal products: humans are animals, after all, so we ought to avoid byproducts of human suffering, too. Third, sentientism recognizes the clear moral difference between killing a clam and killing a cow. (A prominent sentientist, Diana Fleischman, who managed to snag the @Sentientist Twitter handle, describes herself as a bivalvegan: she eats mollusks, who do not have brains and are therefore incapable of suffering, but is otherwise animal-free.)
Sentientism is veganism 2.0. It’s rational, more scientifically sound, and less dogmatic. It also has the benefit of being free from baggage: few people have heard the term, while most people know what veganism is, and have a negative association with the idea for all sorts of reasons. Sentientism is a fresh start.
There’s another benefit to sentientism. As Woodhouse describes it, the philosophy is humanism with a 21st century upgrade. It acknowledges that humans are not the only animals that have experiences; just as we ought to create the best possible world for fellow humans, we ought to extend such compassion to all conscious creatures. By adopting sentientism, humanists will find themselves inching closer to veganism — a new veganism, that is.
On a personal note, sentientism answered a question I’ve had since I first went vegetarian, 8 years ago: Am I still a humanist if I care about animals, too? No – I’m a sentientist.
Image via sentientist.org