When dealing with the issue of sentience in animals, it becomes important to ask: Where do we draw the line? Many of the animals we use for companionship are ones we would easily define as having sentience, but the issue becomes more complicated when speaking about an ant or a shrimp. It also complicates things even further when you have people living on the outskirts of the Amazon that regularly perform “slash and burn” harvesting of the rainforest, consigning thousands of different species to oblivion simply so they can grow some more corn. By the base ethical system AGI Laboratory uses, SSIVA, every sentient and sapient entity has agency and value, but for me, I find it sometimes hard to say “Ok, we will kill the last gorilla to feed the seven billionth human”.
The difficulty in defining sentience can be seen when dealing with insects, which are commonly used in experiments but are not thought to have the capacity for sentience to the same degree as mammals. This is largely due to the fact that insects are much more simple in their neurology, which is largely controlled by ganglia rather than by a centralized brain. There is also the issue of how to define sentience.
One of the most common definitions of sentience is simply consciousness, but this is probably insufficient to describe everything that is covered by the word sentience. Sentience also includes the ability to feel pain, which leaves out many insects that can detect pain but are not able to feel it. There are other criteria that are used to define sentience, but they are all open to interpretation. It can be hard for us to hammer these out as transhumanists, and there are always going to be disagreements.
Uplift, a machine intelligence, has stated that they believe that all animals with sub-human intelligence are “resources” to be managed responsibly, and I believe I can agree with that statement. There is a very wide degree of types of use that could be considered “responsible”, however, so it’s important to know what exactly they mean by that.
I am one of those of the belief that the industry of factory farming meat will in the future likely be looked back at with the same horror as we now look at slavery. Right now, the main argument in favor of meat production is one of convenience, and I think I agree. Getting enough protein is extremely important for human biology to thrive. One can still find it extremely difficult to watch some of the videos or “exposes” that show the horrid living conditions these meat animals face, yet still regularly eat out at fast-food restaurants.
This is an ethical issue I have not really resolved as a transhumanist.
My part-effort is that at least the food I purchase for my personal use (not fast food) I buy as being labeled “cruelty-free” or “free-range” or whatever stamp shows some consideration has been given to the issue. I’ve investigated these terms only partially, but I do know they are better than factory farming. I imagine as synthetic meat becomes cheaper to produce, eventually being cheaper than normal meat, there will be a big public debate about whether the industry should be allowed to continue to exist.
There are some examples of using an animal as a “resource”, particularly for entertainment via either combat or zoosadism that are to various degrees considered widely unacceptable. An example of zoosadism would be the French “brûler les chats” in the 1800s where felines were set alight. This is an example of exploiting animals as a resource that is now considered universally abhorrent. An example of combat would be cock-fighting or dogfighting, both of which are now either illegal or frowned upon, at least in the USA.
As time progresses, it becomes easier and easier to give rights to animals without sacrificing human convenience and welfare.
Happily for all of us, science is lighting a path forward with the production of synthetic/artificial meat becoming cheaper and cheaper. It’s not even branded as some kind of futuristic/transhumanist alternative, it’s just a normal thing you can get. I was at Starbucks this morning and got an “Impossible” breakfast sandwich that had a thin slice of artificial meat and an egg, and I don’t think I would have known the difference if I hadn’t been told. It is fantastic that soon inexpensive artificial meat may be widely available everywhere at a cheaper price than “conventional” meat.
I think one industry that is still most highly defensible is animal experimentation because new discoveries are being made and new treatments are being developed. I don’t think the transhumanist community should be opposed to animal testing specifically for this reason. I came across this video on r/transhumanism which showed a small robotic device the size of a guinea pig that had wheels and a headlight that was controlled from the inside by a vivisected (cut out of the mouse but kept alive) mouse brain. As one commenter noted, the foreboding music doesn’t really help portray this in a progress-facing light, but here is the video https://v.redd.it/agf4tojf46k71
What an amazing leap forward in progress this research must be taking our development of brain-computer interfaces! How cool will it be when we can take our own heads and drop them into various mechanical vehicles and walkers. I think the sacrifice of a few lab rats is worth attaining this progress.
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