The U.K. is proposing to do something that is absolutely revolutionary: it is going to enshrine in law that sentient animals are sentient.
Never mind that, in 1789, Jeremy Bentham argued that the moral significance of animals did not hinge on whether animals had humanlike cognitive attributes but only on whether they are sentient: “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Never mind that the arguments of Bentham and others lead the British Parliament to pass the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act in 1822 and the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835, as well as many other pieces of legislation, including the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Was anyone confused about whether these laws applied to rocks or bicycles, wooden stools, buildings, or blades of grass? No, of course not. These laws only made sense if animals were sentient and had interests in not experiencing pain and suffering.
But on May 13, the Tory government introduced a bill that will recognize animals as “sentient.” Big deal. That recognition has been enshrined in British law for a long, long time. But now the U.K. law will recognize that animals who can experience pain and suffering are sentient, which as about as monumental as recognizing that a person who is agreeable to reason is rational.
The background to this is that, in 2017, when the U.K. was trying to figure out how to leave the European Union, Conservative Party MPs voted to not include in the E.U. Withdrawal Bill that portion of the Treaty of Lisbon that committed EU nations to recognize the sentience of animals. At the time, the Tories said that U.K. law already recognized that animals were sentient. That statement was undoubtedly correct. All of those U.K. laws necessarily assume that animals are sentient because they would make no sense otherwise. The law recognizes that these laws apply to animals who are “capable of experiencing pain and suffering” but does not label them as “sentient.”
The official Tory explanation was that the E.U. animal welfare law was “insufficient” and the British did not want to in any way import that insufficiency by including it in what became the E.U. Withdrawal Act 2018. The government claimed that it wanted to improve animal welfare and would introduce progressive animal welfare legislation along with an official recognition that animals are sentient.
The government’s announcement that it will enshrine the recognition that sentient animals are sentient into law is being proclaimed by the U.K. government and the animal welfare charities as some sort of paradigm-shifting event that is going to change the world for animals.
To regard this as a monumental change is absurd. So why the fanfare?
That’s easy: politics and money. This meaningless law allows the government to play hero and to pander to all of those “animal lovers” who vote. And the fundraising opportunities for animal charities are endless. Groups like Humane Society International and Compassion in World Farming, both of which promote supposedly “humane” animal exploitation and reject the idea that veganism is a moral imperative, are right there on the gov.uk website proclaiming support for the legislation of this synonym. The HSI representative says that “45 of the UK’s most respected animal protection organisations have been united in calling for this Bill.” Wow. That will mean that we will be deluged with endless requests from these charities for donations to acknowledge the importance of this non-victory victory.
And the fundraising opportunities will only increase. On May 12, the government announced its Action Plan for Animals that promises to usher in a new era of animal welfare. This Plan is also being promoted enthusiastically by animal charities such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that will no doubt need your support to make it happen. In other words:
Despite the longstanding recognition that animals can experience pain and suffering, there is still a ton of animal exploitation in Britain. People are still eating animals, wearing animals, and using and killing animals for all sorts of purposes. That shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
If animals have moral value, then the only rational response is to not eat, wear, or otherwise use them as resources for our benefit — that is, to go vegan. Everything else is just a sideshow that is more about making us feel more comfortable about continuing to exploit animals and has nothing to do with securing fundamental justice for animals.