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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

British MPs have neglected animal sentience, should you?

14 December 2017
Emma Tyrrell discusses what her - beef-fat on toast is a healthy snack - professing Grandmother has in common with 313 British MPs.

My family are proudly carnivorous; my Grandma – who doesn’t understand “what all these animal activists are banging on about anyway”- eats beef fat on toast for breakfast and my Grandpa is a self proclaimed “meat and two veg’ kind of guy”. However they acknowledge that animals are sentient; how can they deny it, with three chickens, three horses and a dog as domesticated pets they are aware that animals have the capacity for love and pain (the qualities of sentience.) They look after these animals with care and diligence daily. But does sentience only exist in domesticated animals? And why does this diligent care get pushed under the carpet when it comes to the animals they eat on a daily basis?

In the last few weeks, government discussions on the composition of an EU Withdrawal Bill reached their zenith; within these post-brexit discussions MPs appeared to take the side of my Grandmother. Voting against the transference of Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty and relinquishing the written notion of animal sentience that this EU article outlines, in a vote of 313 noes to 295 ayes, seen in Division 39 of the Bill.

At the outbreak of this decision public outraged ensued, fuelled by a misleading article published by The Independent which claimed that the vote was a movement by MPs to debase the whole notion of sentience in animals, in a ‘vote against scientists.’ Articles with puppies as thumbnail photos and kittens playing with wool flooded social media timelines with sentiments discussing how crude it is to suggest a kitten or another domesticated fluffy archetype was not able to feel pain.

Conservative MP James Duddridge twittered as he flew to defend the motion purporting in a tweet that ‘MPs didn’t vote against transferring article 13 because we believe animals aren’t sentient beings but because we have an animal welfare act’.

Holding a quality of sentience is holding the capacity to feel; certainly and scientifically animals are sentient beings; much of the research into the habits of animals reveals their creation of familial bonds, ability to recognise faces, characteristics of grief and sorrow after the loss of a mate, depression, excitement and most certainly pain. Not only among domesticated pets but most prevalently among pigs, cattle and sheep. As such, Duddridge’s exclamation does not clarify the dispensability of Article 13 but rather reiterates its necessity. Certainly our Animal Welfare Act of 2006 is extensive and protects the rights of ‘commonly domesticated’ animals to a high degree, however it does not acknowledge the welfare of the 70 billion animals that are farmed and killed globally per year. Nor the animals held in labs or the animals that are game for hunting. Nothing in the act, and I quote, ‘applies to the destruction of an appropriate and humane manner’ and ‘a person commits an offence [against an animals welfare only if] the suffering is un-necessary.’

If animals are recognised as sentient, when is their suffering necessary? And how can destruction ever be humane?

By not explicitly recognising animals as sentient, the government does not have to acknowledge these holes in the animal welfare act. Sure, the vote was not as debasing as The Independent initially positioned it, but without explicitly acknowledging the sentience of animals, is the government glorifying apathy? And if animals are not explicitly recognised as having the ability to feel pain and suffering, do any of the welfare acts we have hold any gravity?

In saying this, I am not trying to endow animals with the quality of sapience nor am I trying to paint society, my family, or MPs as morally debased heathens, but I am suggesting that we live in a society where a captive gorilla being shot at a zoo and CCTV of a cat being pushed in a bin is cause for nation outrage, but the sentience of the 70 billion animals being killed globally per year for consumption, is an issue – ironically – ignored when put on the (dinner) table.

Then again, if animal sentience is recognised, would our carnivorous society collapse into complete immorality? If argued in utilitarian terms, certainly; with ‘the moral worth of an action… determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure as summed by all sentient beings.’ But then again, is the sum of pain felt by sentient, factory farmed, confined and slaughtered cows outweighed by the happiness my Grandma feels from a eating roast beef for Sunday lunch?

Words, Emma Tyrrell. Find pictures of fluffy domesticated animal archetypes on her Instagram: @emmajtyrrell.