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Sentientism is an ethical philosophy according to which moral consideration is based on sentience. It is frequently associated with animal rights philosophy and has recently been discussed as an alternative to speciesism and other methods of determining the moral worth of different individuals.
Sentience as a moral criterion has a long history in ethical thought, from philosopher Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1780 to contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer in 1975. Andrew Linzey claims he coined the term sentientism in 1980, as a parallel to speciesism. The first recorded use of the term is in 1991 by Richard D. Ryder.
In extending consideration to non-human animals as well as to any potential artificial or alien sentient beings, sentientism can be seen as an extension of or replacement for humanism. As in humanism, supernatural beliefs are rejected in favour of critical, evidence-based thinking. According to sentientism, the ability to experience suffering or positive feeling should determine whether we grant moral consideration to an entity.
Writer Jamie Woodhouse draws a distinction between sentiocentrism and sentientism: both grant moral consideration based on sentience, but sentientism, like secular humanism, is explicitly naturalistic across all domains, so it rejects supernatural beliefs of all kinds. Therefore, someone who holds supernatural or religious beliefs while granting moral consideration based on sentience would therefore be a sentiocentrist but not a sentientist, according to Woodhouse.
Sentientism differs from anti-speciesism in that it bases moral consideration on sentience and potentially on degrees of sentience, rather than just on rejecting species boundaries. Sentientism is also explicitly naturalistic. Ryder draws a distinction between painism and utilitarianism, both of which rely on the experiences of sentient beings in their ethical calculus.
Woodhouse claims that, as all human beings are animals, sentientism is in agreement with animalism that all sentient animals warrant moral consideration; but sentientism adds that if there exist sentient non-animal beings, such as artificial or alien beings, then they too would warrant moral consideration.
David Chalmers draws a distinction between what he calls broad and narrow sentientism. Broad sentientism grants moral status to any being who experiences phenomenal consciousness – the ability to experience anything at all – while narrow sentientism grants moral status only to beings who experience affective consciousness – the ability to experience conscious states with affective valence (i.e. with a negative or positive character, such as pain or pleasure).
Notable scholars who have identified as sentientists or endorse sentience as a primary moral criterion include Diana Fleischman, Peter Singer, Richard D. Ryder, and George Church.