Panpsychism and Moral Status

Panpsychism is the view that sentience is ubiquitous in the world. Some people find it attractive because it sidesteps the challenge for dualists of explaining why there are two radically different types of things in the world, physical things and mental things.  And panpsychism seems to avoid some of of the challenges that face physicalist accounts of consciousness of explaining how mental properties are related to physical properties; since pan-psychism says that “mentality” is everywhere, the task left for cognitive scientists is simply to explain why that mentality is organized in a particular way rather than needing to directly address the “hard problem of consciousness'” head on.

Many people also find sentientism, the view that sentience is sufficient for moral status, attractive.  So it can be tempting to combine panpsychism and sentientism and conclude that we can assume that all animals, including oysters, snails, and fruit flies, must necessarily have moral status.  This move is a mistake.

The problem with the above move is that it rests on an equivocation on the term “sentient.”  One definition of sentient means “the ability to feel pleasure and pain.”  Another definition means “the ability to have any types of conscious experiences.”  The link to moral status requires the first definition of sentience.  But panpsychism, if true, only entails the second.

Beyond just the definitions, it certainly seems like there are a lot of experiences that are neither positive nor negative…they are simply neutral.  So the fact that some experiences occurred doesn’t tell us that anything morally significant occurred in the absence of further knowledge about what types of experiences they were, even for a sentientist.

But what about observing avoidance behaviour?  If we see that, and we think that mentality is everywhere, shouldn’t we conclude that the avoidance behaviour is indicative of suffering?  But this seems contrary to what we know about pain.  People can still have withdrawal reactions that rely on spinal reflexes, even when they self-report that they don’t feel pain.  In fact, in rare cases, people even report feeling pains but not finding them unpleasant.

So panpsychism doesn’t really sidestep the challenge of determining which types of behaviours in nonverbal populations are indicative of positive or negative experiences.  They may avoid having to take on the hard problem of consciousness but they are left with the hard problem of morally relevant consciousness.

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One Response to Panpsychism and Moral Status

  • Jamie Woodhouse says:

    Sentience, to my mind, is a class of advanced information processing. It’s the morally salient component of consciousness. Experience is just what it feels like to do this type of processing. The advanced information processing of sentience requires a certain level of structural and operational complexity – so far found in humans and most non-human animals, but conceptually also possible in other types of artificial or alien beings.

    I do think that every aspect of the universe can be seen as computation… the operations of the laws of physics / maths on various levels. However, only a sub-set of computations and a sub-set of computational beings are sufficiently rich to support sentience. The pansychist position is that even a pebble is sentient and can experience subjectively. I see no evidence that the information processing going on in a pebble (largely repetitive sub-atomic and atomic interactions) could in any way support sentience.

    It may prove hard to define a precise lower boundary for sentience but I’m confident it requires a pretty complex information processing capability of one sort or another.

    We run a friendly, global community based around sentientism. 56 countries represented so far. You can search for the groups on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, GoodReads and on other fora.

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