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Debating the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill


By Dr Stephen Cooke 

Parliament is currently debating what sorts of legal protections should be given to nonhuman animals. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill would result in nonhuman sentience being recognised in UK law and would create a duty to take account of it in Government policy-making. The Bill proposes the creation of an Animal Sentience Committee, made up of experts, to scrutinise government policy. 

Currently, there’s little in law that requires animal welfare be considered when public authorities make policy. This issue became more serious with the advent of Brexit, when the UK withdrew from European Union regulations governing animal protection. The Bill, currently being scrutinised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, would place a duty on Government to consider and report on the extent to which proposed policy ‘might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. 

Sentience is the capacity to feel. Sentient beings experiences sensations, feelings, and emotions, such as pain, pleasure, fear, happiness, etc. In other words, sentient beings have subjective mental states. When sentient beings suffer injury they don’t just respond physically by shying away or flinching, they also experience unpleasant sensations. Sentient beings have lives that they are invested in, lives that matter to them. 

Protecting cephalopods and decapod crustaceans  

One problem with the Bill is that it only proposes protecting vertebrates. However, there is strong evidence that cephalopod molluscs, such as octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish, experience subjective mental states, including the feeling of pain. Experiments have shown that octopuses take steps to avoid contexts where they have been exposed to noxious stimuli.  For example, they avoid locations where they have been hurt.  These behaviours indicate the memory of an experience and the desire to avoid repeating it. Octopuses have been shown to possess memories and can adapt to their circumstances in ways that go beyond mere conditioned response. They display future-directed behaviour and use knowledge of past experiences in hunting to guide future decisions. They appear to experience both fear and curiosity, engaging in play, and exhibiting individual personalities.  Additionally, octopuses show behavioural responses to pain-relief medication, ceasing to groom injured body parts after the application of local aesthetic.  This behaviour also indicates emotional experiences. 

Vast numbers of cephalopods are currently farmed or caught for food, transported alive, used in laboratories, and kept in aquaria, so exclusion from the Act would result in serious negative consequences for them. A growing body of evidence also shows that decapod crustaceans, like lobsters and crabs, respond to noxious stimuli in ways consistent with the experience of pain, and there is even some evidence of limited sentience in some insects. If sentience matters, then the Bill ought to include sentient beings like cephalopods and decapod crustaceans. Acts like boiling lobsters alive, the common practice of pinching the eyes off shrimp to increase spawning rates, and the industrial farming of octopi ought to be subject to far greater scrutiny in policy-making. 

A doorway to animal rights? 

One concern, voiced by campaign groups like The Countryside Alliance, is that the Bill makes the possibility of animal rights more likely, something they describe as ‘an extreme agenda’. Granting rights to nonhuman animals would create legally-enforced constraints on humans using them in ways that violated those rights. Whilst the Bill itself suggests nothing of the sort, we might nevertheless ask what duties sentience ought to impose upon us.  

One common argument against animal rights is that humans are special in some way. A big problem with that view is that there are no capacities possessed by all humans and no nonhumans. If capacities like rationality, moral autonomy, or language-use are chosen as the basis of rights, then we will find that children and those with severe cognitive impairments are excluded from protection. There’s simply no way to include all humans and no nonhumans without resorting to arbitrariness (something the writer and psychologist Richard Ryder termed ‘speciesism’). To be consistent in the way that we ground rights, we ought to instead justify them in terms of the interests they protect. These interests, like the interest in life and that of not suffering, are shared with other sentient beings. Far from fearing the advent of animal rights, the right thing to do is to work towards their implementation.  

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill won’t do this, but it represents a small amount of moral progress nevertheless and a welcome opportunity to discuss the issue.


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