Dale Jamieson’s heart is clearly in the right place, both about protecting sentient organisms and about protecting their insentient environment.
Philosophers call deserving such protection “meriting moral consideration” (by humans, of course).
Dale points out that humans have followed a long circuitous path — from thinking that only humans, with language and intelligence, merit moral consideration, to thinking that all organisms that are sentient (hence can suffer) merit moral consideration.
But he thinks sentience is not a good enough criterion. “Agency” is required too. What is agency? It is being able to do something deliberately, and not just because you were pushed.
But what does it mean to be able to do something deliberately? I think it’s being able to do something because you feel like it rather than because you were pushed (or at least because you feel like you’re doing it because you feel like it). In other words, I think a necessary condition for agency is sentience.
Thermostats and robots and microbes and plants can be interpreted by humans as “agents,” but whether humans are right in their interpretations depends on facts – facts that, because of the “other-minds problem,” humans can never know for sure: the only one who can know for sure whether a thing feels is the thing itself.
(Would an insentient entity, one that was only capable of certain autonomous actions — such as running away or defending itself if attacked, but never feeling a thing – merit moral consideration? To me, with the animal kill counter registering grotesque and ever grandescent numbers of human-inflicted horrors on undeniably sentient nonhuman victims every second of every day, worldwide, it is nothing short of grotesque to be theorizing about “insentient agency.”)
Certainty about sentience is not necessary, however. We can’t have certainty about sentience even for our fellow human beings. High probability on all available evidence is good enough. But then the evidence for agency depends on the evidence for sentience. It is not an independent criterion for moral consideration; just further evidence for sentience. Evidence of independent “choice” or “decision-making” or “autonomomy” may count as evidence for “agency,” but without evidence for sentience we are back to thermostats, robots, microbes and plants.
In mind-reading others, human and nonhuman, we do have a little help from Darwinian evolution and from “mirror neurons” in the brain that are active both when we do something and when another organism, human or nonhuman, does the same thing. These are useful for interacting with our predators (and, if we are carnivores, our prey), as well as with our young, kin, and kind (if we are K-selected, altricial species who must care for our young, or social species who must maintain family and tribal relationships lifelong).
So we need both sentience-detectors and agency-detectors for survival.
But only sentience is needed for moral consideration.