I was just reading the article All Animals Are Equal by Peter Singer. In this article, the Australian-born philosopher and professor at Princeton argues for equality between humans and nonhuman animals. He argues that the capacity to suffer and enjoy should be the only requirement for consideration of one’s interests (which is what counts in utilitarian ethics), because some being who can’t suffer or enjoy, can’t have interests. “Sentience” is the word Singer contends to use. If a being is sentient, it means it has interests. That is a more plausible requirement than reason, or moral capacity, or any other characteristic, for it is what is at the core of the idea of considering interests: if a being can’t suffer or enjoy, that means intrinsically that it has no interest. On the other hand, however mentally defective or morally incapable a being may be, if it can still suffer or enjoy, it has an interest, for it will be affected by what happens to it. In this case, mental capacity or moral ability is equally arbitrary to, for instance, skin colour. Therefore, this is the defining characteristic of whose interests should be considered, and according to these standards, nonhuman animals should be given equal consideration to humans.
Throughout the article, I remained suspicious, for I know Singer for being quite prejudiced against a particular group of human beings: the disabled. I kept wondering why he does argue for equal rights of animals, but still advocates infanticide on the profoundly retarded. Singer however does mention the retarded, although in this article he uses the argument that we wouldn’t do experiments on the retarded to state that we shouldn’t do the same on animals, either.
Still, I seem to have to take it that Singer thinks that, apparently, profoundly retarded people have no sentience. He does not discuss this in this article, but he does say that reason, apparently, is not needed for sentience, since we suspect that some animals do not have reason (or, traditionally, that no animals have reason). Having said that, I still feel a little puzzled, for it is determined by some other standard whether someone has sentience.
Cause how does one determine whether someone has sentience? I heard sometime that fish could feel pain. That didn’t surprise me, but it makes me wonder how they found out, especially since a philosopher who argues for animal rights as well as infanticide on the retarded, now is using sentience as an argument for the former. It is generally by getting some sort of reaction that it is found out that someone is sentient. And, even though no conventional communication may be needed to indicate that one has feeling, the being’s reactions (if any) must be interpreted as indicating that it can feel. This is even a controversial issue with people who are in a coma, so how controversial it must be with animals! Is there any reliable means of measuring whether a being is sentient? Aren’t we biassed by our own standards? I am afraid we are.
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