What Difference Does it Make if Gove Recognises Animals as Sentient?

15 December 2017
By Elliott Woodhouse

Michael Gove’s recent statement confirms that the British Government will continue to legally recognise the sentience (which Gove defines as the ability to feel pain and emotion) of nonhuman animals after withdrawing from the EU.[1] This comes after MPs voted down Green Party MP Caroline Lucas’s proposed amendment to recognise nonhuman animal sentience in the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Michael Gove’s decision to keep the UK’s legal attitude towards nonhuman animals in line with both popular and scientific conviction is little cause for praise in itself. It seems that at the very least the law ought to represent our modern scientific understanding. However, it is an especially slender case for praise since this legal recognition is only a return to the “protections” offered to nonhuman animals under the EU, as well as placing us in line with the laws of many other countries both inside and outside of Europe, rather than any solid commitment to improve the lives of nonhuman animals.

I use the term “protections” in inverted commas because I think it bears noting what exactly governments mean when they say that they recognise nonhuman animal sentience. In a previous entry on this blog, Dr. Alasdair Cochrane praises the constitutions of India, Switzerland, Brazil, and in particular Germany, which he notes have “included animal protection as a state objective”.[2][3] If the German government is true to its constitutional commitments, we can only conclude that their understanding of what protection means is far removed from how we would understand it in any other context. Statistics suggest that in Germany alone 59 million pigs were slaughtered in 2015.[4] That’s an increase of 43 million deaths of “sentient”, “dignified”, “beings” since the year 2000, during the years where the constitution was amended to recognise the sentience of nonhuman animals. In light of this, Gove’s commitment to recognising the pain and emotions of nonhuman animals is deeply performative. Given the increase in the amount of sentient beings being slaughtered in Germany after their formal recognition of sentience, we can be in no doubt that Gove’s policies won’t have any significant effect on the lives of nonhuman animals in the UK.

The recognition of nonhuman sentience should be accompanied by a commitment to a radical change in the relationships we have with nonhumans. The recognition of their capacities for pain and emotion should be cause for us to re-evaluate a system which systematically destroys nonhuman lives on an unimaginable scale. Recognition of sentience in nonhumans should cause us to re-evaluate the justifications for systemic violence against nonhumans; if we take these claims seriously, we must begin to unpick the mythology of human exceptionalism and our right to dominate. In recognising sentience in nonhumans, we are questioning the founding principles of the humanities. Humans are instead just one kind of life on an unbroken spectrum with all others who share with us the capabilities of fear, boredom, exhaustion and pain that make animal agriculture unjustifiable.

As long as we live under a system dominated by state power and capitalist interests, there are no incentives for governments to take seriously what it means to recognise nonhuman sentience. Dr. Cochrane is right to worry that Gove’s lackluster commitment to recognising nonhuman sentience (compared to the former EU commitments) is perhaps likely to put nonhumans at greater risk of the kinds of gratuitous and malicious violence currently outlawed by our animal welfare legislation, but his comments ignore the fact that in every case these recognitions of sentience have failed to challenge the existence of a system which perpetrates extreme violence against nonhumans on a daily basis.

Celebrated animal welfare campaigner, Temple Grandin’s slaughterhouse innovations were only effective through recognising the sentience of the nonhumans being sent to their deaths. The recognition of their fear and the reluctance to be slaughtered was essential to pacifying their resistance to the process. The same appears to be true of these legal recognitions of sentience. The recognition of sentience acts as a way to appease the public who are concerned about the way we treat nonhuman animals, and opens up the legal case for greater “welfare” and “protections”. However, as long as there is profit to be made, and tax revenues to collect, the law’s movements to recognise the sentience of nonhumans will never liberate them from a system where they are treated as property to be exploited and murdered.

[1] DEFRA, Animal and Plant Health Agency, Micheal Gove, The Environment Secretary Confirms Sentience of Animals Will Be Recognised and Protections Strengthened When We Leave The EU’’ (23 November 2017) accessible online at : https://www.gov.uk/government/news/environment-secretary-confirms-sentience-of-animals-will-continue-to-be-recognised-and-protections-strengthened-when-we-leave-the-eu

[2] Dr Alasdair Cochrane, ‘’Gove Promises that UK law will recognise animal sentience but…’’ , ShARC Blog, (24 November 2017).

[3] Kate Connolley, ‘’German Animals Given Legal Rights’’, The Guardian, (22 June 2002), accessible online at : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/jun/22/germany.animalwelfare

[4] German-Meat, ‘’Germany : Largest Pork Producer in the EU’’, accessible online at : http://www.german-meat.org/en/meat-germany/agriculture/