Sentience, biological imperatives and personal interests

A sentient being – unlike a chair or table – cannot have an “owner” in the usual sense.

The relationship must be more like that between a legal ward and her legal guardian (or caretaker or parent).

Guardians must be entitled to go to court in the interest of their ward.

If the animal being has no guardian, or if the guardian does not act in her interests, she must become the legal ward of the court, which must act in her interests.

Without this the notion of “well-being” is voided of meaning — and with it the notion of a sentient being with biological imperatives (= interests) that must not be violated.

This is why no one (including the “owner”) can do whatever they like to their dog, unlike to their chair.

Why? Because a dog, as a sentient being, has an interest in her own well-being (in not having her biological imperatives violated: deprived of food, water, shelter, space, freedom of movement, social imperatives, freedom from pain, freedom from fear, freedom from stress). That is what it is to be a sentient being. Chairs have no interest.

It is incoherent to enshrine this interest in law, formally recognizing animal sentience and its biological imperatives, yet not accord that interest legal standing in court.

It was explicitly in order to distinguish a sentient being from an insentient object without any interests that Quebec’s AWSA (BESA) law was adopted.

That is why the sentience law implies, both logically and practically, that the legal status of “owner” likewise needs to be updated to make it conform and cohere with the animal being’s status of sentient being.

That is why the status of guardian or parent is much more appropriate and natural than “owner” in the case of a sentient being as opposed to an insentient object.

A sentient being has biological imperatives and it thus has (like all sentient beings) a personal interest (even without needing to be declared a legal “person”) in not having its own biological imperatives violated. Being sentient means being capable of feeling pain and suffering if one’s biological imperatives are violated.

The only way to resolve, logically and fairly, the inconsistencies described above (owner, property, insentient object, sentient being, biological imperative, interest, guardian/caretaker/parent) will be to develop a new legal category of agent, other than “ordinary owner,” for those who have the care of a sentient being (human or non-human). If biological imperatives were not personal interests, the distinction between insentient objects and sentient beings would be empty and meaningless.

Sensibilité, impératifs biologiques, et intérêts personnels

Un être sensible — contrairement à une chaise ou une table — ne peut pas avoir un « propriétaire tout court ». 

La relation doit être davantage comme celle entre un pupille puis son tuteur (ou gardien ou parent). 

Le gardien doit avoir le droit de saisir le tibunal dans les intérêts de son pupille, 

Et si l’être animal n’a pas de gardien, ou si le gardien n’agit pas dans les intérêts de l’être animal, il faut que l’être animale devienne le pupille de la cour, qui agira dans ses intérêts.

Sans ça la notion de « bien être » est vidée de sens; et avec elle la notion d’un être sensible ayant les impératifs biologiques ( = les intérêts ) qui doivent être respectés. 

C’est pour ça que personne (y compris le « propriétaire »), contrairement qu’avec sa chaise, ne peut faire n’importe quoi avec son chien, . 

Pourquoi? Parce que le chien a un intérêt a son bien-être (le respect de ses impératifs biologiques: eau, air, nourriture, logement, espace, liberté de mouvement, impératifs sociaux, absence de douleur, absence de peur, absence de stresse). C’est ça d’être un être sensible. Les chaises n’ont aucun intérêt.

Il est incohérent de reconnaitre cet intérêt formellement dans la loi, en reconnaissant la sensibilité animale et ses impératifs biologiques, mais pas devant le tribunal, faute de « l’intérêt juridique » d’agir. 

C’est précisément et explicitement pour distinguer un être sensible d’un objet sans intérêts que la loi BESA a été adoptée. 

C’est pour ça que l’adoption de la nouvelle loi implique logiquement et pratiquement qu’il faut maintenant  mettre à jour le statut juridique de « propriétaire» pour le rendre conforme et cohérent avec le statut d’être sensible.

C’est pour ça que le statut de tuteur/gardien/parent est beaucoup plus approprié et naturel quand il s’agit d’un être sensible et non pas d’un objet insensible. 

Un être (un organisme) sensible possède des impératifs biologiques et il possède ainsi un intérêt personnel (même sans devoir être déclaré une « personne » juridique) à ce que ses impératifs soient respectés.

La seule façon de résoudre logiquement et équitablement les incohérences décrites ci-dessus (propriétaire, propriété, objet insensible, être sensible, impératif biologique, intérêt, gardien/tuteur/parent) sera de developper une nouvelle catégorie juridique d’agent, autre que « propriétaire » ordinaire, pour ceux qui ont la garde d’un être sensible (humain ou non humain). Parce que si les impératifs biologiques ne sont pas des intérêts personnels, la distinction entre les objets et les êtres sensibles est complètement dénaturée et dépourvue de sens.

Bioethics, heterotrophy and psychopathy

Biological organisms are living beings. Some (not all) living beings (probably not plants, nor microbes, nor animals with no nervous system) are also sentient beings. That means they are not just alive, surviving and reproducing; they also feel.

And with feeling comes the capacity to be hurt: chairs & tables, glaciers & shorelines, and (probably) plants & microbes can be damaged, but they cannot be hurt. Only sentient beings can be hurt — because it feels like something to be hurt.

And with feeling comes the capacity to be hurt: chairs & tables, glaciers & shorelines, and (probably) plants & microbes can be damaged, but they cannot be hurt. Only sentient beings can be hurt — because it feels like something to be hurt.

Most organisms are heterotrophic, meaning that they have to consume other organisms in order to survive. (The exceptions are autotrophs like green plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria.)

This means that nature is full of conflicts of vital (life-or-death) interests: predator vs. prey. If the prey is sentient (i.e., not a plant), this means that the predator has to harm the prey in order to survive (by killing and eating it) — and the prey has to harm the predator to survive (by fighting back or escaping, depriving it of food).

There is no point trying to make conflicts of vital interest into a moral issue. They are a biological reality — a matter of biological necessity, a biological imperative — for heterotrophic organisms. And there is no right or wrong or choice about it: The survival of one means the non-survival of the other, as a matter of necessity.

But now comes the unique case of the human species, which is sentient and also, like all heterotrophic species, a predator. Its prey are plants (almost certainly insentient)  and animals (almost certainly sentient). But unlike obligate carnivores (like the felids), humans also have a choice. They can survive, in full health, as either carnivores or herbivores, or both. We are facultative omnivores.

The primates probably evolved from earlier herbivore/insectivore species, but there is no doubt that most primates, including the great apes, are also able to eat small mammals, and sometimes do, but, unlike us, they can’t live on (almost) nothing bu meat alone. Our own species’ evolutionary history diverged from this mostly herbivore origin; we became systematic meat hunters; and there is no doubt that that conferred an adaptive advantage on our species, not just in getting enough food to survive but also in evolving some of the cognitive traits and the large brain that are unique to our species.

Far fewer of our ancestors would have survived if we had not adapted to hunting. They did it out of necessity; a biological imperative — just as it is hypothesized that it was under pressure of a biological imperative that our ancestors evolved a “sweet tooth,” a predilection for sugar, which was rare in our ancestral savannah environment, making it important to consume as much sugar as we could when we could get it, because we had many predators and needed the energy to escape. By the same token, our predilection for aggression and violence, toward other species as well as our own, had been adaptive in our ancestral environment.

But in our current environment many of these ancestral predilections are no longer necessary, and indeed some of them have become (mildly) maladaptive : Our predilection for sugar, now abundant (whereas predators are almost nonexistent), when unchecked, has become an important cause of caries, hyperactivity, obesity and diabetes (but not maladaptive enough to kill or prevent enough of us from reproducing to eliminate those genes from our gene pool). Our predilection for aggression and violence, when unchecked, is leading to ever more deadly forms of warfare and devastation (but not deadly enough, yet).

And in the same way, our unchecked taste for animal protein has led to industrial production of livestock, water depletion, air pollution, climate change, antibiotic overuse (creating superbugs), and a variety of human ailments. But the point is that we have retained our hominid capacity to survive, in full health, without animal protein. We are, and always have been, facultative omnivores — with two metabolic modes herbivore and omnivore — that could adapt to different environments. 

So far, I’ve only mentioned the negative consequences of animal protein consumption for us along with the positive consequences of  not consuming animal protein, for us.

But let me suggest that we should not minimize the moral/bioethical aspect. Even if, setting aside the climatic aspects, the direct health benefits of our no longer eating meat are, for us, only mild to moderate, the harm and hurt of our continuing to eat meat are, for our sentient victims, monstrous.

And it should not be left unsaid that the clinical hallmark of a psychopath is the fact that if they want to get something, psychopaths are unmoved if getting it hurts others, even when what they want to get is not a vital necessity. That is why it is so important that people be fully informed of the fact that meat eating is not necessary for human health and causes untold suffering to other sentient beings. Because most people are not, and do not want to be, psychopaths.

Why are you a vegan? How did you become a vegan?

— Why are you a vegan?  How did you become a vegan?

— What’s the saddest thing about being (or not being) a vegan?

— What’s the one thing you wish everyone knew about veganism or (was aware of) regarding consuming animal products?

— Could you tell us about your “inner pig”?

I am vegan because I think it is wrong to hurt sentient beings when it is not necessary for survival (as it is for a carnivorous predator like a lion, who has no choice). I became vegetarian age 17, but only stopped eating eggs and dairy when I was reminded of the horrors of those industries at a McGill Symposium on Animal Law, nearly 50 years later — for which I am deeply ashamed, because I had suspected it all along, but didn’t want to look there. And because I now know how shamefully easy it is to stop. 

The saddest thing about being vegan is knowing all that animal suffering is completely unnecessary (except for the few subsistence cultures left who have no other choice yet). Most people still believe, wrongly, that eating animal protein is necessary for our health, or that it would be hard to stop eating it, or that food “livestock” live happy lives and deaths. The three lies we tell ourselves. It’s the truth I wish people knew. (I and many others are trying hard to awaken their minds and hearts faster than mine did.) 

I have an “inner pig.” She has spent her short 6-month life in misery, packed in with others (10%) dead or dying in filth, disease, stench, and violence all around her; she has been squeezed in a truck with hundreds of others and has just arrived at Fearman’s Slaughterhouse after a 36-hour journey with no food or water or protection from heat or cold; in a half hour she will be gassed with carbon dioxide, stunned (maybe), scalded with boiling water to soften her skin, and then her throat will be cut (maybe still conscious, as it’s 1000 pigs massacred per hour). I consult her whenever I wonder whether something that has just happened to me matters (article rejected; grant refused; experiment fails, can’t afford to buy something I want; someone has just been mean to me). She just looks at me. What her eyes say is unmistakable: “No, it doesn’t. Please save me.”

My Inner Pig
My Inner Pig


If only this wise op-ed by Thomas Palley had not been rejected, and had appeared before the UK election, and heeded… (and note the strategic advice about opposition-union, echoing the Hungarian case of having to contend with the inherent bias in the 1st-past-the-post poppycock — the counterpart of US gerrymandering and other undemocratic gadgets).

Read and weep

Tell One, Tell All

Dogs are undeniably brilliant. They can communicate (some of) what they want and what they know, and they can perceive (some of) what other dogs as well as humans want and know. Stella is especially brilliant.

But neither Stella, nor any other dog, nor any other animal other than human, has language. They cannot communicate linguistically, which means propositionally

Here is the simple reason why. (This example is just theoretical: I love to have my cat on my bed!):

A “sentence” is not just a string of words.

Pick the simplest of simple sentences: “The cat is on the bed”

If you have a cat and you have a bed, Stella can learn to “call” them “cat” and “bed by pressing a button that says “cat” and “bed.”

And Stella is definitely smart enough to learn (from your behavior) if you don’t want your cat to go on your bed. (You speak sternly to your cat when he goes on your bed, and you shoo him off.)

So, knowing that, Stella is definitely smart enough to go get you and bring you to the bed when she has seen that the cat is on the bed. She knows you don’t want him to do that, and maybe she also likes to see you shoo him off the bed.

All that is really there: She really does know all that; and she is really communicating it to you, intentionally.

And no doubt she can also learn to communicate it to you by pressing the buttons “cat” “on” “bed” (in place of herding you to the bed the old way).

All of that is incontestably true.

But Stella cannot say “(The) cat (is) on (the) bed.” — And not because she does not yet have a button for “the” and “is.” You could train those too.

The reason Stella cannot say “The cat is on the bed” is that “The cat is on the bed” is a subject/predicate proposition, with a truth-value (true). And if Stella could say and mean that proposition, then she could say and mean any and every proposition — including this very sentence, which is likewise a subject/predicate proposition, with a truth-value (true).

But she cannot. And if she cannot make any and every proposition, then she cannot make a proposition at all.

You will want to reply that it’s just because she doesn’t yet have all the necessary vocabulary (and, for the more complex sentence, she also does not have the interest).

But being able to say and mean any and every sentence is not just a matter of vocabulary. It is a capacity that comes with the territory, if you can really say and mean any proposition at all.

“(The) cat (is) on (the) bed” is not a string of words that you say whenever the cat is on the bed, any more than “bed” is just a sound you utter whenever you are looking at a bed.

Nouns are not just proper names of individuals. A bed is a kind of thing, a category of which all beds are members. So if the word “bed” refers to anything at all, it refers to a category, not an individual.

But dogs can categorize too. To categorize is to do the right thing with the right kind of thing (lie on beds and not-lie on thumbtacks). Dogs (like all mammals) can categorize — and learn to do the right thing with the right kind of thing.

One of the things we can learn to do with a category is name it: “ (a) bed.” 

But “bed” is not just a sound we make whenever we see a bed. It is a sound we make whenever we have a bed in mind. Whenever we wish to refer to a member of the category “bed.”

Another thing we can do is to describe a bed: “(a) bed is soft” (not true, but ok for an example). 

But “bed is soft” is not just a string of sounds we make whenever we see or have a soft bed in mind. It is a subject/predicate proposition, stating something to be true about the members of the category “bed”: that they are soft.

Now you may think that Stella can say and mean a proposition too. 

How could that be tested one way or other?.

We have the cue in a property of human language (the only kind of language there is: the rest is just intentional communication capacities, which Stella certainly has): There is no such thing as a “partial language” — one in which you can make this proposition but not that. 

If you have any language at all, you can make any proposition. Vocabulary and prior knowledge are not the problem. You can in principle teach Quantum Mechanics to any member of an isolated Amazon tribe that has had no contact outside his own community and language for thousands of years. You just have to teach the vocabulary and the theory, starting with the words they already have — which means through recombinatory propositions.

This kind of teaching is not training to “name” kinds of thing by their category names; nor is it training to “name” certain states of affairs (involving things and their properties) by certain strings of category names.

Teaching is using propositions (subject/predicate combinations of existing words) to communicate further categories (by defining and describing new categories, which may in turn have their own names. If you know the category to which “bed” refers and you know the category to which “soft” refers, you can communicate that beds are soft by just stating the proposition — if, that is, you have the capacity to express and understand a proposition at all.

There are deep unanswered questions here: Why is our species the only one that can communicate propositionally? Dogs (and apes and elephants and whales and crows) all seem brilliant enough to do it. Why don’t they? What do they lack? Is it specific cognitive capacity? Is it Chomsky’s Universal Grammar? Or is it just a motivational gap?

I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that no other species has propositionality, otherwise some of them would be discussing it with us by now.

Harnad, S. (2011) From Sensorimotor Categories and Pantomime to Grounded Symbols and Propositions. In M. Tallerman & K. R. Gibson (eds): Handbook of Language Evolution, Oxford University Press.

Vincent-Lamarre, P., Blondin Massé, A, Lopes, M, Lord, M, Marcotte, O, & Harnad, S (2016). The Latent Structure of Dictionaries  TopiCS in Cognitive Science  8(3) 625–659

The Specious Present

The vast, expanding portion of the universe
that is inanimate
has neither a past nor regret.
Entropy is inexorable and oblivious.

Only the biosphere has a past,
but it has passed
the instant it has been.
Regret is in the present,
the specious present,
and it is more dread than regret.
And dread is for the future.

Let life go on.
Blot out only sentience.
Et nunc et semper.

Conflicts of Vital Interest

Re: Thagard, Paul: “Why Pets Are NOT People

(1) Calling non-human animals “people” is the same as calling them human (members of our species), which is of course nonsense. But seeking the legal (and technical) status of “person” for non-human animals if they are to be afforded protection in court is not nonsense.

(2) The analogy with slavery is not invalid, but the common point is not being human beings but being sentient beings (i.e., capable of feeling, suffering).

(3) Well-treated domestic pets are not the problem (if they are rescues and do not reproduce), but even they are in the tiny minority among domestic pets (most of whom are bought from breeders and not well treated, and some of whom reproduce). The problem is needless human-induced suffering in sentient beings, the amount and proportion of which is monstrously, obscenely, and increasingly enormous.

(4) People enjoy having pets, eating meat, wearing fur, going to rodeos, hunting: does this trump the needs and suffering of the countless sentient beings who are the victims of this human enjoyment?

(5) There are interests and there are vital (life/death/survival) interests. Obligate carnivores (like lions) in (what is left of) nature must kill and eat their prey to survive. That is a vital interest. The water-buffalo needs to try to kill or rout an attacking lion to survive. That is a Darwinian conflict of vital interests.

(6) But human interest in having pets, eating meat, wearing fur, going to rodeos, hunting… are not vital interests. (Notice that I skip over that deeply troubling conflict of vital interests that is the small minority of biomedical research that saves [human] lives.)

(7) To have a vital (life/death/survival) interest, a sentient being must be born.

(8) Purpose breeding of sentient beings by human beings to serve human non-vital interests is morally wrong, if anything is morally wrong.

(9) The only one entitled to judge whether it is better for a sentient being to be born is that sentient being — not the breeder.