FAQ: What’s the difference between respect for sentient beings and environmentalism?

FAQ: What’s the difference between respect for sentient beings and environmentalism?

29 Jun 2023

Q: What is the difference between considering the interests of all sentient beings and environmentalist views?

A: Considering the interests of all sentient beings means considering how our actions might positively or negatively impact the wellbeing of all individuals capable of feeling and perceiving. So far, all sentient beings belong to the animal kingdom, but if this changes in the future (for example, the development of non-organic sentience), considering sentient beings would include these beings as well.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, focuses on the balance or sustainability of ecosystems, species, and the planet as a whole. While environmentalism is concerned with issues like biodiversity loss, pollution, and natural resource depletion, it does not prioritize the interests of individual sentient beings, especially nonhuman animals. Environmentalism would justify actions that harm animals if they benefit some environmental goal, like protecting endangered species or habitats.

In short, the key difference comes down to whether one prioritizes the wellbeing of individuals or so-called “ecosystem balance” which usually refers to a particular ecosystem configuration that humans prefer. Consideration of all sentient beings aims to protect both individuals and the resources they rely on, while environmentalism may disregard individuals for the sake of ecological concerns. The difference matters most for wild animals, who may suffer under environmentalist policies but could do well in a framework that considers sentient beings.

Q: What is ethical holism, and how does it relate to the debate between respect for sentient beings and environmentalism?

A: Ethical holism is the view that wholes, totalities, or systems like species or ecosystems have intrinsic moral value apart from (or greater than) the individuals that comprise them. It attributes value to the whole itself, not the interests or wellbeing of members. Individuals may even be sacrificed for a particular ecosystem configuration considered valuable by environmentalism, for example, because it is rarer, more complex, or contains only native flora and fauna, even when it is worse for the sentient beings living there.

Q: What is an ecosystem?

A: An ecosystem is a system formed by the interactions of a group of living organisms with each other and with the physical factors of the environment in which they live. It includes the land, water, and air, as well as the plants, animals, and microorganisms that inhabit it. Ecosystems are constantly changing. Viewed as a whole, an ecosystem can be damaged, but it is not sentient, so it cannot be harmed.

Q: What is the difference between respect for animals and ecocentrism?

A: Respect for animals, which stems from an ethics centered on sentience, focuses on how we should act toward nonhuman animals because our actions and decisions can affect their wellbeing. Ecocentrism places intrinsic value on natural environments and sees an ecosystem as composed of functional parts. According to ecocentrism, sentient beings are merely components of an ecosystem, having only instrumental value in maintaining the ecosystem. That is, their wellbeing is not considered important in itself.

Q: What is the difference between sentient beings and living things?

Living things are simply all biological things. This includes animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms. Among living things, only animals are sentient.

Sentient beings are entities that can have subjective experiences, form interests, and perceive or interact with the world in some way. This includes biological entities like animals and certain biologically-based alien beings we may encounter in the future. These beings have biological mechanisms for experience and sensation that generate interests and preferences.

Sentient beings could someday include advanced artificial systems that have been designed or evolved to have their own virtual experiences, code-based interests, and simulated perceptual processes. Rather than biology, their experiences emerge from programming and algorithms.

Q: Why adopt sentience as the criterion for moral consideration rather than living things (biocentrism)?

A: Sentient beings can have subjective experiences that are either good or bad, which means they can suffer or enjoy their experiences. A living being, on the other hand, is simply a biological entity. Examples are animals, trees, plants, and microorganisms. Many animals are sentient, but other living things, like plants and microorganisms, are not. According to animal ethics, only sentient beings matter in themselves because only they can be harmed. Damaging other living things is bad only to the extent that it affects the wellbeing of sentient beings. For example, destroying plants that animals depend on for food harms those animals.

Q: How does a species differ from individuals?

A: A species is an abstract entity that defines the characteristics of animals who share certain features, genetic makeup, and other factors such as the ability to interbreed. A species is not a sentient entity that can be harmed.

Nor is a species the sum of its members, meaning that prioritizing a species does not mean prioritizing the wellbeing of the majority of its members.

Sometimes individual animals are considered merely exemplars of a species, but this disregards the wellbeing of those animals. Animal ethics puts the focus on sentient individuals instead because only they can be harmed.

Q: Is biodiversity good for the wellbeing of individual animals?

A: Biodiversity is not necessarily good for the wellbeing of individual animals. From the perspective of the wellbeing of sentient individuals, biodiversity is not bad or good. It can be harmful when more biodiversity results in more suffering than would occur with less biodiversity.  For example, greater biodiversity might negatively affect the supply of food and shelter, conflicts between animals, and how many animals die when they are very young. Biodiversity might be “good for an ecosystem,” but this does not tell us anything about whether it is good for the sentient individuals who live there.

If our goal is what’s best for sentient beings, then when evaluating their situations, it’s best to rely on factors directly related to their wellbeing, like food and physical safety, rather than on the degree of biodiversity.

Q: If a practice is ecologically sustainable, does that mean it is good for animals?

A: Sustainability focuses on acting in ways that don’t deplete resources, including environmental resources. Sustainability usually only considers human wellbeing and preferences, but it could include others if we wanted it to. Usually, environmental perspectives focused on sustainability consider nonhuman animals as resources, not as individuals whom we should respect. It is for this reason that there are practices that are sustainable but which cause a great deal of suffering and death to nonhuman animals. This is, for example, the case with fishing and hunting, when they are practiced in a way that does not threaten the stock of resources (in this case, nonhuman animals are seen as mere resources).