Government proposals to recognise vertebrates as sentient beings are welcome, but this should be just the start

Look a dog in the eye and a conscious being looks back. A being that feels hunger, thirst, warmth, cold, fear, comfort, pleasure, pain, joy. No one can seriously doubt this. The same is true of any mammal. You cannot watch rats playing hide and seek and doubt that they have feelings – that they are sentient creatures. But as animals become more distant from us in evolutionary terms, some doubt begins to creep in.

Consider a bee sneaking past the guards of a rival colony to steal honey. Or the Brazilian ants that, in order to hide their nest at the end of each day, seal off the entrance from the outside. Left out in the cold at night, these ants will never see the morning, but their sacrifice increases the chance that their sisters will. The urge to attribute feelings to insects can be surprisingly strong.

Related: Animals to be formally recognised as sentient beings in UK law

Jonathan Birch is an associate professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics and principal investigator on the Foundations of Animal Sentience project

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