Jainism and Sentient Rights

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Jainism and Sentient Rights
By Jonathan Dickstein, PhD

“So you’re saying that animals should have the same rights as humans?” This question is not infrequently voiced to animal rights advocates. While there are some troublesome assumptions embedded in its phrasing – the cogency of the catch-all category “animals,” the curious isolation of human animals from the category “animals,” the cross-cultural plausibility and applicability of “rights” – the question expresses a common and widespread concern:


Granting nonhuman animals rights means that animals are equal to humans.


The Speciesist Assumption

Many assume that animal rights advocates deny that human beings are “better” or “matter more” than animals. This denial can be unsettling because oppressed humans have routinely been likened to animals in order to justify their oppression. But even more fundamental is a virtually universal form of species narcissism that elevates all humans above all other living beings in terms of cosmic value. Oftentimes no more than an appeal to species classification – “We are human. They are not.” – is offered by humans to defend their superior rank. In short, there is an assumption that species, in itself (especially “being human”), matters morally.


Jainism’s Sense-based Approach

This is where the Jain Cosmo-ethical worldview assists us tremendously. In the Tattvārtha Sūtra (TS 2.11-2.25), sentient beings – mobile and immobile – are classified according to their sense faculties. One-sensed (touch) beings are earth-, water-, fire-, air-, and plant-bodied beings. Two-sensed (touch, taste) are worms, leeches, and mollusks. Three-sensed (touch, taste, smell) beings are ants, fleas, and some other insects. Four-sensed (touch, taste, smell, sight) beings are additional insects such as wasps, flies, butterflies, and scorpions. Five-sensed (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing) are fish, birds, quadrupeds, and humans (and demons and gods).

Sentience – “awareness,” or the capacity to experience sensation – is shared by all of these beings, even those who possess only a “psychic mind” and not a “physical mind” (TS 2.11, 2.24, 5.19). Given the near pan-Indic religious maxim that pain (duḥkha) is intrinsically bad and inflicting pain should be avoided whenever possible, humans must mind the “sensedness” of all sentient beings affected by their actions. When practicing ethical decision making, humans must consider the differential sensory capacities, and consequently the interests, of all the beings in question.


A Shared Rejection of Speciesism

I highlight this sense-centric, non-speciesist perspective in Jainism to draw a parallel with contemporary Western moral-philosophical thought as presented by Peter Singer and Alasdair Cochrane. Decades ago in Practical Ethics, Singer issued his principle of the “equal consideration of interests,” whereby “we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions,” because “an interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be” (1993, 21). Singer’s point is that we cannot deny appropriate moral consideration to a being’s interest – for example, a pig’s interest not being caged – simply because the being is classified as “pig” and not “human.” Our moral obligation to consider the interests of pigs does not “equate” pigs and humans, but rather recognizes that all interests must be considered where we are deciding what to do.


Sentient Rights

Cochrane terms this moral-political view as “sentient rights” rather than “animal rights.” In fact, Cochrane argues for “human rights to be reconceptualized as sentient rights,” and that “all sentient creatures possess certain basic rights on the basis that they possess interests” (2013). Singer’s and Cochrane’s emphases on sentience and interests rather than species – especially “being human” – are shared by a Jain text comprised over two thousand years prior. The Tattvārtha Sūtra tells us to start our practice of ethical decision-making not from categories such as “species,” but rather from the differential capacities of the sentient beings involved. While “rights” may be much more modern concept, a perceptive akin to “sentient rights” has existed in Jain traditions for millennia.


Jonathan Dickstein is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on South Asian Religious Traditions, Animals and Religion, and Comparative Ethics.