Animals Declared “Sentient” in New Zealand: Hard Questions Sure to Follow

Now who's sentient?Photo credit: quinn.anya / Foter / CC BY-SA

New Zealand has passed an amendment to its animal welfare law stating that animals are “sentient beings,” and the amendment seems to strengthen some measures that define how or in what situation an animal can be used for various purposes, such as medical experimentation. That’s good!

Though it’s not clear from the bill itself (as far as I can tell) what it means by “sentient.” No language in the wording of the bill spells it out, nor does it specify which animals possess sentience. The little bit of bloggy news coverage I’ve seen (all of which might as well be copy-and-paste jobs of each other) suggests the simple definition of the ability to percieve things, having feelings, and the ability to suffer. That doesn’t help me, really. I don’t mean to presume that this hasn’t been flushed out by the relevant parties, I have no idea, but I sure as hell don’t think I could say for sure to what degree, say, a mouse feels or suffers versus, say, a chimpanzee.

Because there has to be degrees of sentience, right? If sentience were a binary thing, then we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands, with trillions of members of millions of species all now declared to have “feelings” and “perception” just “like humans.” So I have to assume that New Zealand is not now offering asylum to fruit flies or making illegal the squashing of ants. We can be mostly certain they don’t have “feelings” (like, I dunno, jealousy?), but don’t ask me whether or not they “suffer.”

I don’t mean to make light of this, truly. I do think this is a good thing, but it strikes me as vague and ill-defined. The group Animal Equality (equality? really? you sure?) calls it a “monumental step forward for animals,” and I think that’s overselling it. We’re not talking about personhood, but rather what sounds more like a general sense-of-the-government quasi-resolution kind of thing, saying that we all need to be way more mindful about how we treat the other animal species we share the planet with, particularly those we breed and harvest and manipulate for our benefit.

That stipulated, its very nebulousness may be its saving grace. By virtue of being vague and undefined, it may force some very difficult and very necessary conversations, questions, and debates. For if there’s a questionable practice that seems to inhabit a grey area, or something being done to an animal whose “sentience” is not terribly clear, this new law may spur some very crucial arguments. Regardless of how those arguments are resolved, the conversation about our fellow creatures is suddenly elevated, given more gravity. All parties, then, get the benefit of having thought harder and longer about something we’ve had the privilege to take for granted since we first started domesticating.

One small step further, if you’ll allow, because with this discussion I can’t help but be reminded of the hearing over Data’s personhood on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard tells the Judge Advocate General:

[T]he decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?

The bill specifies animals, so this line of thought is probably moot for the news at hand, but think of artificial intelligence. At what point to we consider a machine or some software to be capable of “perceiving.” Don’t they already? When do we consider them to be “feeling”? When they tell us? When do we consider them to be “suffering”? Ever? As long as that’s never written into their programming?

One day, and maybe one day very soon, we’re going to need some law for that. And unlike animals, the artificial intelligence might ask us for it.

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