While the topic of sentience has been a core component of animal ethics and animal welfare debates for many years, historically it has received surprisingly little attention within academic research. Very recently, however, increasing public and legislative concerns have shone a spotlight on animal sentience researchers, with two key questions in mind: which species can we be sure are sentient, and how should that impact on the way society treats them? In this introductory talk,both these questions and their answers will be considered. What we mean by the “sentience of a species”, and how much we need to be “sure” of this, are of tremendous importance, but more important still is the evidence we currently have, and the evidence we still need to obtain, to understand whether (and in what ways) animals possess capacities for “feeling”.
Current scientific theories of conscious experience and sentience vary dramatically in their conclusions about animals, with some suggesting a degree of sentience capacity across the entire kingdom, and others skeptical about sentience in any groups other than primates. The presenter argues that further research is needed for these differing views to be resolved, but the impact that scientific theories and research has on the welfare of animals is also important to consider. To illustrate this, examples of studies that have influenced both legislation and public opinion will be described, as well as very recent ones that are set to further influence opinions in the future.