Posted by: Paul Chiariello | October 9, 2011

The Mental Life of Animals: Sentience, the Soul and Moral Worth


A while ago I found this collection of photos.  The description is at the bottom.

But to recap,  it is very simply an alley cat protecting the body of his dead friend.  Apparently he was there for days and even brought food.

It’s hard to imagine what is going on in the mind of this cat.  I mean, it’s hard to imagine what is going on in your mind, reader, or any other human’s.  Do you have as rich a set of experiences and thoughts as I do?  When I look at you I can certainly infer from your behaviors, but that is about all.

But when I look at animals, when I infer things from their behavior in the same way, I see basically the same thing.  I could post hundreds of such examples of dogs, birds, gorillas and, believe it or not, squirrels.

Now don’t get me wrong, we’re obviously different.  But are we different in kind or merely different by degree?  Do animals have a fundamentally different kind of sentience or are we only more… ‘complex’ or… ‘sensitive’ to empathy and emotion and so on

Take Koko the gorilla as an example.  The link provided leads to a video with Koko asking for a cat and then nurturing and raising it.  She names it ‘All Ball’.  The video ends when she learns of its death years later.

Koko signs that she is sad over and over again.  When left alone, her cries can be heard outside her room.

Did you think animals could cry?  Yearn to nurture others?  Express emotions like ‘sad’?

Social creatures – other than humans – have emotions, suffering, intimate relationships, pain and, most importantly, an awareness of these things, themselves and others.

All this is called sentience – our capacities for suffering, pleasure, mental awareness and social relationships.  In fact, all animals have sentience to some degree, even bacteria.  But let’s go back to these higher levels before we think about the sentience of a virus or bacteria.

What does this complex and rich sentience in Koko or the alley cat mean?

For those that believe in a soul, you should ask yourselves: Do animals have one?

Do we treat animals differently merely because they are not ‘human’?

All of us should ask ourselves: What is the moral worth of this sentience?  What is the value of this experience of suffering and connection to others?

What does it mean if humans are merely on one end of this suffering and not fundamentally different creatures?

I would love you comments below if you have any.



  1. “Hard to imagine” is an appropriate expression for these topics, yet stimulating to consider. Difficult to feel the sentience of another’s suffering unless something is happening to one of your own (may be across or along any species). The value and worth of sentience and suffering, not sure if there is a way to measure that, or whether Koko and others consider the valuation of their actions at all when doing things. I guess there is a inner feeling that humans have when they express compassion, but whether it is the same or not with animals, I can’t infer. I think that animals do feel something, but its not likely a priority as a human to be concerned unless it is a “loved one” so the distinctions of the recipients of one’s compassion is determined somehow. I’m also curious because I’ve heard that emotions mostly don’t linger across time and experiences with some animals.

    • Well first, people work along in-groups and out-groups when we experience empathy and moral obligation. Give me any social interaction between humans or among chimps and I’ll accurately explain it in those terms. Chimps, and many other animals, are famous for having complex altruistic and life long relationships with members of their in-groups. Peter Singer does a great job of showing this equivalence in one of his papers, where he in the first paragraph tells you he is describing ‘people’ and then goes on to describe a group of chimps. At the end he makes sure to let you know you were tricked. Second, about the ‘lingering across time’ such: Koko carried on her emotions for All Ball for years and the example of the cat lasted for a week or so. It’s hard to tell what emotions are felt on the inside of animals, but their behaviors suggest they are of a vivid and long term nature.

  2. I loved this little piece…loved it…so often I have tried to express this and you’ve done it so concisely, I hope, so convincingly. Here’s the question I would have added at the end: “If animals behave so empathicaly, compasionately, …do they have a soul? …and if they have a soul and so behave thus, must humans who fail to behave thus have lost their soul? [at the other end of the spectrum of sentience=lack of a soul?]

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