In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords is currently scrutinizing the new animal welfare bill, and many have argued that it is bad law. It doesn’t solve any particular legal problem, and there are concerns that passing it will give some committee free reign to hammer the farming and fishing industries.
These are good points, but they miss what is so disturbing about this proposed legislation. The crucial difference between this bill and existing legislation is its repeated emphasis on animal sentience. The bill insists British law recognize that animals can suffer and for the government to take that already accepted fact into account whenever it makes new policies.
Supporters of the bill see this as uncontroversial. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to ease suffering? Surely, the bill simply formalizes what all decent people already think. The problem with this new focus on sentience is that it subtly shifts the focus of value. The concern becomes not the animal itself but what the animal feels. While such thinking might initially seem unproblematic, it comes out of a reductionist strain of thought that has disturbing implications for the sanctity of human life.