In November 2012 I was invited by John Hadley and Elisa Aaltola to contribute to a book anthology work-titled Animal meta-ethics: New directions in animal philosophy. My contribution will be co-authored by Jonathan Beever of Purdue University. A full paper is due later in 2013 - this is the abstract Jonathan and I wrote in the days before Christmas:
Beyond sentience: Biosemiotics as foundation for animal and environmental ethics
Morten Tønnessen (University of Stavanger, Norway) and Jonathan Beever (Purdue University, USA)
In this chapter we argue that biosemiotics can and should serve as foundation for animal and environmental ethics, particularly with regard to justifying attribution of moral status to non-humans. Our contribution rests on a contemporary semiotic interpretation of the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), one of the founding fathers of ethology.
Our approach argues that sentience is not coextensive with phenomenal subjective experience, but instead is a particular instance of such experience. In an Uexküllian sense, all living beings, even unicellular beings, have subjective experience by having semiotic agency, the capacity to navigate in a world of signs (aka the capacity for signification). The reason why moral status (general moral considerability) and moral value should be attributed to all living beings is that all living being have semiotic agency. This latter assertion implies that
- there is a world of experience that means something to each living creature, and
- all living beings are capable of distinguishing between what is attractive (good) to them, what is repulsive (bad) to them, and what has no function for them.
Our actions might affect the wellbeing of any living creature insofar as they affect its worlds of experience and action. Whereas sentience has traditionally been understood in relation to the moral weight of suffering and pain in particular, our approach involves an acknowledgement that the wider ground of sentience is a reality of subjective experience that is omnipresent in the realm of the living at large.
Scientific questions such as How widespread is sentience in the animal kingdom? are certainly of continued interest. What we suggest is that we start out by recognizing what is common to all living organisms, namely their semiotic agency, and that this stand should inform these other discourses as well.
Attribution of moral status can be done at different levels of biological organization. We hold that moral status and value should be attributed at various levels simultaneously. Our basic premise, that semiotic agency is the soundest foundation for attributing moral status and value, suggests a certain (but not exclusive) emphasis on subjective experience and thus on the level of the organism/individual, where applicable. However, individuality is no simple notion, and the organism’s character of being already-ecological points to valuation of ecological levels too. An account of animal ethics, on this relational view, demands a complementary account of valuation of those environmental relations as well.
We propose particularism defined by the normative maxim that each living being deserves to be treated well in accordance with its specific needs. These needs vary so much that it neither makes sense to value all living beings evenly nor to rank them hierarchically. Proper treatment of different living beings has to be case-specific and take species-specific and other needs into consideration. Facilitating the fulfillment of the needs of the living to the greatest extent possible is what ethics is all about.
 Not to be confused with “moral particularism”, Hare 1963.