Omnivore’s Dilemma continues its case against the vegan alternative worldview by telling us that animal advocates require sentience in nonhuman animals, and without sentience, we believe there is no innate value. Therefore, species rights activists will not advocate for their protection. I have met some animal advocates who do seem to be concerned only or chiefly about individuals and species who are sentient. They seemed not to be overtly environmentalists. That is a problem.
Requiring sentience before we care runs counter to biocentrism wherein every species, individual, and ecosystem has innate value. That demand is useless to any human ecology because non-sentient species, and their ecosystems, are required for all others to exist. Mountains have innate value because they are integrated and essential to the characteristics of ecosystems, if for no other reason. Fortunately, most species rights advocates I know do value ecosystems and the non-sentient species. Animal advocates are rising on the same tide of increasing awareness as all humanity awakens to global environmental issues.
Environmentalists, seeing at least the mechanical connections between species and their ecosystems, do not require sentience before respect, even reverence, is given to them. Their shortcoming is that sentience does not figure prominently in their advocacy [I discuss the failures this causes for environmental NGOS in my book, This Is Hope…]. Dilemma’s brush is too wide and misses the environmental work of many species rights NGOs. Perhaps Pollan is relying too narrowly on Peter Singer’s work, Animal Liberation, where sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, to be conscious, is linked to intrinsic value.
Dilemma is overly dependent upon citing a few philosophers who have developed arguments about the value of individuals from other species. They do not agree on all points. Their arguments regarding the value of lives are momentary snapshots in an evolving deliberation, not its whole. Confined by the rules of logic required by philosophical debate, these arguments can give rise to conclusions and choices none of us would ever make. In Practical Ethics, Singer acknowledges this when he writes about the logic that would “approve” of killing an “unlimited” number of domesticated species if they had enjoyable lives, and after being killed, were replaced with others experiencing the same, equally enjoyable life. Singer writes, “As a piece of critical moral reasoning, this argument may be sound. Even at that level, it is important to realise how limited it is in its application…. at the practical level of moral principles, it would be better to reject altogether the killing of animals for food, unless one must do so to survive.”
We could have used Singer ’s admonition in Omnivore’s Dilemma because it reveals a more comprehensive representation of what Singer wrote. Additionally, in “Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?” Peter Singer does make the connections between sentient species, ecosystems, and human poverty even when he does not ascribe innate value to ecosystems.
Next: The Philosophers Pollan Overlooked