Animal rights proponents often assert that “sentience” is the only morally relevant characteristic. In their view, we owe the same moral consideration to all sentient living beings, which must include the same basic rights to life and freedom.
The animal rights philosopher asks — Why does it matter if humans can compose a violin concerto or prove complex mathematical theorems? After all, animals also have unique abilities that no human possess. Birds can fly unassisted, dolphins use sonar, and mice have an exquisite sense of smell. In what way does human intelligence makes us different from other living beings in any morally relevant way?
As an example, one of these philosophers, Prof. Gary Francione, writes:
“[...] cognitive characteristics beyond sentience are morally irrelevant [...] being “smart” may matter for some purposes, such as whether we give someone a scholarship, but it is completely irrelevant to whether we use someone as a forced organ donor, as a non-consenting subject in a biomedical experiment.”
Sentience, according to the dictionary, is the “ability to feel and perceive things.” However, to Prof. Francione it clearly means something more:
[...] sentience is a necessary as well as sufficient characteristic for a being to have interests (preferences, desires, or wants) in the first place. A rock is not sentient; it does not have any sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything. A plant alive but has no sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything.
Having preferences, desires, beliefs, interests and acting purposely to achieve them is to attribute a living being with mental states that go beyond the mere ability to feel and perceive things. It goes beyond the accepted definition of “sentience”. Yet, it seems obvious that not all species possess these attributes in equal degrees.
A human mother that is contemplating death due to cancer, will suffer beyond her physical pain when thinking that her children will grow up without a her, that she will never see them marry or have children of their own, that she will leave her spouse alone to take care of the family.
It is her cognitive abilities that allow her to suffer in ways other animals cannot. Thus, if we agree that suffering is morally relevant, the type of suffering this mother experiences must count too. And because such suffering is enabled to beings with the cognitive abilities that allow them to pose such questions, one must conclude that human cognitive abilities are morally relevant too.
There is a second important way in human intelligence becomes morally relevant. It is the fact that our cognitive skills give rise to the scientific edifices of mathematics, physics and life sciences, which allows us, humans, to combat suffering in the world.
Humans have relied on our science to develop vaccines, screening tests and diagnostic devices, therapies and cures for many diseases. These developments have saved billions lives, both human and non-human, and eliminated much suffering.
In contrast, while it is true that birds fly, dolphins use sonar and mice have a terrific sense of smell, none of these abilities allow them to battle suffering.
Rejecting our ability to confront suffering is to reject our human condition. Rejecting the moral responsibility that results from our cognitive abilities, as proposed by animal rights activists, would be wrong.