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Sentience and the primordial ‘we’: contributions to animal ethics from phenomenology and Buddhist philosophy


Daly, A, Sentience and the primordial we': contributions to animal ethics from phenomenology and Buddhist philosophy, Environmental Values ISSN 0963-2719 (In Press) [Refereed Article]


This paper explores the underlying ontological bases for ethical behavior and ethical failure in the context of the vexed relationships between human animals and non-human animals by drawing on resources in phenomenology, social cognition and Buddhist philosophy. In agreement with Singer and the utilitarian project, I argue that the basis for ethical behavior with regard to animals is most effectively justified and motivated by considerations of sentience. The definition of sentience has been refined since its traditional Benthamite formulation as the capacity to experience hedonic pleasure and pain as sensate creatures, with Mill’s more elaborated version and his distinction between lower and higher pleasures and more recently with Singer’s reformulation which adds the notion of interests. Nonetheless, the utilitarian account still misses crucial aspects of sentience. Buddhist ethics, unlike Western ethics, is from the beginning not focused solely on humans but encompasses all sentient beings. This inclusivity, in addition to the refined interrogations of the varieties of suffering, means that Buddhist philosophy is able to furnish a more nuanced understanding of sentience. Furthermore, from phenomenology, which has a number of significant commonalities with Buddhist philosophy, we learn that sentience tacitly includes the capacities for self-awareness and, I will argue, a plural selfawareness; not only does the ‘I’ belong to a ‘we’, but the ‘we’ is constitutive of the ‘I’. This ‘primordial we’ I propose provides the basis for rethinking the moral relations between human animals and nonhuman animals. While I appreciatively acknowledge the impact that Singer’s work has made in this domain, the utilitarian approach cannot philosophically achieve all that Singer sets out to achieve without an ontological account. Tellingly in more recent years Singer has advanced the notion of interests which goes beyond the strictly utilitarian brief in that ‘interests’ perforce belong to a subject and subjectivity perforce entails ontological considerations. My aims are thus threefold: firstly, to argue for not only a more extended understanding of suffering in the account of sentience but an account that also includes self-awareness – any sentient being is the subject of a life; secondly, I propose that self-awareness includes a tacit awareness of the primordial ‘we’, the fundamental kinship we have with all subjects including non-human animals. I contend finally that we thus have an ontological basis in ‘interanimality’ to explain why we most often do and should care about all sentient beings.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Keywords:sentience, phenomenology, animal ethics, enactivism, Buddhist philosophy, social ontology
Research Division:Philosophy and Religious Studies
Research Group:Philosophy
Research Field:Phenomenology
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in philosophy and religious studies
UTAS Author:Daly, A (Dr Anya Daly)
ID Code:148468
Year Published:In Press
Deposited By:Philosophy and Gender Studies
Deposited On:2022-01-13
Last Modified:2022-01-27

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