Steve Bein, writer & philosopher

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The first "well, duh" law?

New Zealand just passed a law that's making headlines. It’s the first to declare that animals are "sentient"—that is, that they "can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress."

 Presumably this will be met with cries of "Finally!" from animal rights activists around the world, and cries of "Well, duh!" from everyone else who hasn’t been staying abreast of animal rights legislation but has ever met an animal before.

 Because for most of us this isn’t a big shock. To say a puppy is sentient is to say it’s capable of being happy and unhappy. That’s it. That’s the big reveal.

 "Well, duh," the modern philosopher says proudly. "We’ve been taking the whole sentience thing pretty seriously for a good two hundred years now." Jeremy Bentham, one of my philosophical role models*, said morality was grounded not in rationality but in sentience—that is, not in the ability to reason but rather the ability to suffer. Shocking stuff circa 1800, but these days his view is pretty intuitive. If I kick your puppy, which is worse: that I’ve injured and terrified the puppy, or that I’ve committed a property violation against you? Most people side with the puppy.

 So here’s what the big headline should have been: “New Zealand passes first law to catch up with where mainstream Western moral philosophy was two hundred years ago.”

 To which the Buddhists can smack their foreheads and say, "Yes, but two hundred years ago the big headline should have read, 'First mainstream Western moral philosopher catches up with where Buddhism was 2,300 years ago.'"

 To which the average caveman of 40,000 years ago can say—and maybe you want to say too—"Well, duh. Have you ever met a puppy? Did it have a very good poker face? Why do you people need all of these philosophers and lawyers just to tell you a puppy is capable of being happy and unhappy?"

 Well, duh.



*Bentham doesn’t make my list because of his philosophy. He’s my role model because he had himself taxidermized after death. In fact he’s still mounted, stuffed, and on display at the university where he taught. Honest. Every semester I tell my students this is what I want my family to do with me when I die: take me to the taxidermist, then to whoever does the animatronic stuff for Chuck E. Cheese. Stick me in the philosophy section of the library wherever I was teaching, and rig it up so that I can smile and wave when people come down to hang out with me and my favorite books.