Better safe than sorry? How much caution is too much in thinking about animal sentience and animal welfare?
I had a really enjoyable discussion with Simon Lauder about this topic on ABC South East NSW earlier this week (Wednesday 19th June 2020). The audio is available here.
The question of animal sentience (i.e. the capacity to experience pain) is fundamental to discussions of animal welfare—undue animal suffering is immoral and must be avoided and if animals. Whilst this much is agreed upon, applying this principle requires an understanding of animal sentience Which animals are sentient? Which are not? When is a given animal in pain or suffering? When is it not?
Answering these questions is often less than straightforward. Behaviours we associate with pain in ourselves, not always being present in animals in similar situations (e.g. an animal may conceal pain rather than yelp or cry out). In the face of this uncertain evidence, policy makers typically adopt a policy of “erring on the side of caution” or “giving the animal the benefit of the doubt”. This results in animal welfare policies which treat an animal as though it is capable of experiencing pain despite uncertain evidence (see discussion by Jonathan Birch here).
Whilst this approach has the great benefit of minimising unnecessary suffering in the world, recent of pain perception in bees and fish challenges the practicality of the principle. For example, worldwide some 970 to 2700 billion fish are wild caught annually. If fish are sentient, then the number of sentient beings in the form of fish that are slaughtered for food annually equals at least twelve times that of the current human population (see Bob Jones on this here). . This offers a great case for ceasing animal fishing on the grounds of being better safe than sorry morally. Such a policy would, however, come at huge human cost. 3.2 billion of the world’s population rely on fish for a significant proportion of their daily food intake, not to mention the economic reliance on fisheries of people This creates a dilemma for the welfare policy maker. Perhaps even more stark is the challenge with invertebrates like bees and flies (see discussion of bee sentience by Colin Klein and Andy Baron here). If the evidence of their sentience is correct, then there are serious moral implications of pesticides. Again, however, “erring on the side of caution” and avoiding invertebrate deaths and suffering would have massive human costs. How should we weigh up the evidence in such a situation? Should we abandon the principle of erring on the side of caution? Or should we bite the bullet and treat even the tiniest fly as sentient? Is there a middle ground?