Spirituality and Sentience


Recognizing the sentience of nonhumans obligates you to engage with life in a manner that, at minimum, seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering.

During my recent Spirituality & Health Podcast interview with author, animal chaplain, and fellow S&H columnist Sarah Bowen, I was reminded how difficult it is for many people to accept the notion that animals have rights no less vital to themselves and their wellbeing than human rights are vital to humans and human wellbeing. The reason for this is simple: Most people reserve the notion of sentience to humans alone. My own sense of the matter is quite different.

I am a disciple of the three Ps: perennialism, panentheism, and panpsychism. As such I hold that there is a universal truth (all life is sacred) and a universal ethic (the Golden Rule) at the mystic heart of all religion (perennialism); that all life is the manifesting of a nondual Aliveness called by many names: God, Allah, Tao, Brahman, YHVH, Nature, Mother, and others (panentheism); and that all existence is permeated by consciousness (panpsychism). Given this, it should be of no surprise that I am overjoyed at the United Kingdom’s new Animal Welfare Law that recognizes invertebrate as well as vertebrate animals as sentient beings.

[Read: “Sustainable Activism for Animal Lovers.”]

In the context of this law, sentience is understood as the capacity to feel pain, which requires a certain level of consciousness. This is demonstrably true. Imagine you are undergoing open-heart surgery without anesthesia: The pain would be unbearable and the procedure unbearable! But under the proper anesthetic, you are unconscious, and the operation is performed without pain. Indeed, you feel no pain until the anesthetic has worn off and you return to your normal waking-state consciousness.

This is not to say that the human experience of sentience/consciousness is the same as that of a lobster, but it is to say that the pain you would feel if you were boiled alive is of a kind with that of a lobster being boiled alive. Accepting this as true, the original Golden Rule becomes applicable in our relationship with animals: Do not do to another what you would not want done to yourself (Confucius, Analects XV.24; Hillel, Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a). The negative formulation of the rule (Do not do) allows us to focus on alleviating an animal’s suffering (something we can understand) rather than focusing on providing the animal with something it desires (which we may not understand).

Recognizing the sentience of nonhumans (I would include all life forms from quarks to quasars and beyond) obligates me to engage with life in a manner that, at minimum, seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering. Why “unnecessary suffering” rather than just “suffering”? Because there are times when suffering is a necessary byproduct of actions done in another’s best interest.

[Read:“Animal Chaplain Sarah Bowen on Respecting and Revering All the Animals”]

For example, I must eat to live, and whatever I eat suffers from my eating it. In this I must choose among three options: don’t eat and die, eat whatever I want without regard to another’s suffering, or eat in a way that minimizes the suffering caused. The first option privileges the other over myself; the second option privileges myself over the other; and the third option seeks a middle way. I prefer option three: yes, I must eat but I will do my best to eat as simply as possible. For me, this means not eating meat.

How do I deal with the suffering I cause cucumbers and tuna? First, I eat vegetables from local gardens (my own and those of nearby family farmers); second, I eat tuna that is poll-and-line caught; and third, I feel guilty. Don’t discount my guilt; it is what motivates me to do better. Someday I may cease to eat fish and move to a strictly vegan diet. But not today; hence the guilt and the hope.

Listen to the conversation that inspired this article on the Spirituality & Health Podcast with Animal Chaplain and fellow S&H columnist, Sarah Bowen.

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