Is Sentience Better in Practice than Humanism? | Man holding up puppy
Reading Time: 5 minutes Unpslash

Overview:

Imagine a world where all sentient beings – human or otherwise – have recognized and protected rights. That’s sentientism. But is it better?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Imagine a world where all sentient beings—human or otherwise—have recognized and protected rights. That’s sentientism.

I like to imagine the Mos Eisley Cantina on the Star Wars planet Tatooine. At this tavern, all types of beings—humans, droids, and alien species—come for strong drinks, and that absolute banger of a song Cantina Band plays in the background. 

I love that imagery of tipsy diverse sentience enjoying each other’s company listening to sweet, swingin’ jizz music. (I’m not making up the genre, they actually call it jizz).

Wouldn’t it be so cool to live in a world where we can commune with other sentient beings as equals? We would treat all humans, animals, and AI with dignity and respect as sentient equals!

I learned about sentientism during a talk delivered at the 2022 American Humanist Association conference. Curious to learn more, I accepted an invitation to join a Facebook group about it. 

It took less than a week for this group to bring me disappointment 

The group supported this Richard Dawkins quote where he loosely defended sentientism. While Dawkins has made some noteworthy contributions to atheism and science, I’ve previously written about he is also a crusty old fart who fails to view social issues with a lens of intersectionality. He has made dehumanizing statements about people of color and transgender people. When people attempted to address how his comments were harmful, he got defensive and dug his heels in further. 

And yet, this is the Dawkins blurb on Sentientism.info’s website: 

“Richard is an ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. He is a vocal atheist and naturalist. He grants moral consideration to sentient non-humans in principle and hopes for a vegan world. However, in practice, he continues to buy and consume sentient animal products.”

The writers felt it pertinent to highlight his hypocrisy in “consuming sentient animal products” but didn’t acknowledge the even more damning hypocrisy of his unapologetic transphobic and racist comments. Oof. 

I ended up responding to the Dawkins quote in the group, pointing out how weird it was to select such a poor example of a practiced humanist—much less sentienist—to advocate for sentientism. The pushback summarily amounted to: “well, some people are hypocrites, but we’re just glad he’s speaking in favor of sentientism.”

There it was: an unintentional admission that this was not actually about the practiced values but the PR. Ugh.

I’m an already-jaded Millennial humanist leader. Global humanist leadership has ignored some of the most important calls to act on their stated values. So you could say I’ve become pretty skeptical of this messaging.

And now I have the same concerns about sentientism as humanism: Could it also be a movement filled with good intentions and bad practice? 

I know why we as secular people struggle with the poor execution of our stated values

In the process of unlearning indoctrination and harmful beliefs, there’s a lot of inward journeying, which leads questioning people down the path of atheism and eventually to a more structured set of secular ethics like humanism. But the journey focuses on the individual. It involves unpacking the shame and guilt of challenging a system that conditioned you into believing it serves your best interests. That guilt and shame can be passed down from religious trauma even when people aren’t religious anymore. 

My parents grew up Catholic and became atheists before meeting one another. They raised me as a humanist, and yet I still must manage this haunting, tortuous sense of guilt and shame about my existence that I inherited from them.

These feelings are profoundly isolating, and that’s why they have been such a powerful tool of religion to control people for so long. When you feel alone, you feel disconnected from the community. You feel “picked off from the herd.” You’re naked and vulnerable with no protection from the pack. And it’s your fault—and nobody else’s.

This is the kind of culture we’ve come to tacitly accept as a result of placing responsibility squarely on the individual. We abide by the religious tradition of blaming the individual rather than considering the full view of communal and environmental circumstances that result in an individual “failing” their responsibilities. 

Individuals are very easy scapegoats without the support of a community to fight back. The powers that be squash the “threat” of a dissenting individual with shame, guilt, and isolation; then, voila, the individual becomes despondent and no longer a “threat.”

Both the church and colonialism use these strategies of putting all accountability on the individual

“Either you adapt to my Western imperialist culture, or I kill you for being a sinful savage.”

As a result, the concept of blaming individuals rather than systems has deeply rooted within our language, too:

  • “That’s the problem child.”
  • “It’s just a few bad apples.”
  • “Watch out for her. She’s high-maintenance.”
  • “They are the black sheep of the family.” 

Western discussions and debates tend to be binary in this individual-focused culture. There is little room for nuance or feeling okay with conflicting ideas. We have been trained to move toward the outcome of proving ourselves right and others wrong. The goal is to win. 

With the heavy western influence on atheism and humanism, individualism bleeds into our well-intentioned collectivist values. This influence strains our ability to form relationships and organize community—even when we have very admirable values. Rather than seeking to build and nurture connections, we become self-focused.

We pursue intellectual wins rather than moral ones. Devotion to western atheism and humanism has come to be characterized by “being right” rather than “doing right.” 

I worry the sentientist movement is falling into the same trap of confusing intent with impact

To me, it feels like status quo western humanism with non-human sentient being rights tacked on, rather than an upgraded, relationship and community-focused, embodied ethics practice including non-human beings. 

How can those who don’t recognize transgender people as human beings have the genuine empathy to extend to beings outside their own species? And if they do have that empathy to extend to non-human beings, what does that say about how they regard trans people in their own damn species?

How can sentientism avoid the same trap humanism has fallen into?

The hard-and-fast prerequisite to sentientism should be that people must hold progressive social values and already empathetically challenge the systemic oppression against beings within our species. Without that prerequisite, sentientism won’t be a good-faith movement. It would just basically be western humanism+. 

Intellect is a powerful way to fight back against the oppressor. But these western secular movements rely too heavily on the left brain and not enough on the right brain. And honestly, I think that’s a result of fighting back against the emotional abuse religious white male supremacy has inflicted on our Western cultures for centuries. 

But unfortunately, a sampling of unorganized individuals using their intellect on the oppressor has minimal impact. What has a far more significant impact is an organized, empathetic community who are on the same page, coordinated, collectively supportive, and fighting back for the sake of their community rather than just for themselves… or the sake of their mom, sister, or wife… Or that one Black friend they have, one nonbinary person at the office, or that neighbor’s kid with a disability.

Ubuntu is the answer

What we need is Ubuntu humanism—or Ubuntu sentientism. Ubuntu is a collection of values and practices from the people of Africa that views “an authentic individual human being as a part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world.” It translates from Zulu as “I am because we are” and from Xhosa as “humanity towards others.” 

Ubuntu is all about seeing yourself in other beings and honoring your connection through action on their behalf. That’s about as humanist an approach as it gets, and it is mainly absent within Western humanist thought.  

Enacting sentientist values through Ubuntu practice would have more impact on the status quo than western humanism. You don’t have to personally know a suffering individual through the Ubuntu approach to stand with your community. Solidarity in the sentient community doesn’t require intellectual debate to validate suffering. You stand with your sentient community because you know there’s suffering.

If sentientism as a movement course-corrects to an Ubuntu approach, I will be more interested in advocating for it over humanism. But for now, I am convinced it’s just another western secular movement with good intentions and disappointing value practice.

anya overmann

Anya Overmann is a digital nomad, writer, activist, and lifelong Humanist. As former President of Young Humanists International, she continues to work to advocate for inclusive young humanist communities...