Current Competing Conceptions of Animal Welfare

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Current Competing Conceptions of Animal Welfare
Reiblich, Jesse
Haynes, Richard ( Mentor )
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University of Florida
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Current Competing Conceptions of Animal Welfare

Jesse Reiblich


The term "animal welfare" has been appropriated by animal scientists in order to justify the continued use of

animals in agriculture and experimentation. The farm animal welfare science movement traces its roots back to

the findings of the Brambell Committee in 1965. These findings were reported in the Brambell report, a report

that established minimum standards for the treatment of livestock, including the following "five freedoms":

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

4. Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's

own kind.

5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering. (Brambell, 1965)

Several conceptions of animal welfare have evolved from the Brambell Committee's report and

initial recommendations. These various conceptions are the result of a disagreement among scholars and

scientists on everything from the definition of suffering to the basic nature of animals. Various scholars have

noted how the strategies and discursive measures used by scientists in public policy debates legitimate the views

of these scientists while at the same time work to discredit, undermine, and alienate the views of non-scientists

who, because of different values, agendas, etc., bring different meanings to the debate. These strategies often

serve to create public distrust in scientific input on important policy issues and to stifle much needed public

debate. As such, it is the aim of this paper to show that the current popular conceptions of animal welfare by

the animal welfare science community are deficient and are used by animal welfare scientists to continue

the exploitation of animals.


What is welfare? The competing conceptions of animal welfare seem to hinge, to a great extent, on the meaning

of this word. For instance, does welfare refer to meeting the basic needs of an agent or is welfare contingent upon

an agent's happiness? The Oxford English Dictionary defines welfare as: "The state or condition of doing or

being well; good fortune, happiness, or well-being (of a person, community, or thing); thriving or successful

progress in life, prosperity." So it seems like welfare is in some way linked with happiness, but how?

L. W. Sumner's book Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics highlights what seems to be the most accurate and

least problematic theory of welfare. Sumner's account works to bridge the gap between the practical and

the abstract. Sumner explains in the preface that traditionally "philosophical theories about the nature of

welfare have so far been too remote from our everyday experience of it" (viii). Sumner attempts to repair

this division by developing a subjective theory of welfare that connects welfare with happiness in a way that

previous subjective theories of welfare have failed to do. Specifically, Sumner attempts to avoid the weaknesses

of the two traditional subjective theories of welfare, hedonism, and desire theory.

According to Sumner, classical hedonism fails because it holds that welfare is merely a mental state or collection

of mental states (111). Sumner points out that although pleasure and pain are sensations and seem to be

mental states, the same cannot be said of enjoyment and suffering. Desire theory fails because, although I

may desire X, the attainment of X may be negative. As Sumner explains, "since our desires always represent our

ex ante expectations, there is always room for these expectations to be mistaken" (130). As such, Sumner

claims that his theory of welfare "mediates between hedonism and the desire theory, exploiting the strengths of

each while avoiding their weaknesses" (139).

Sumner calls his theory of welfare "the happiness theory of welfare." On this theory, Sumner explains that,

"welfare therefore consists in authentic happiness" (139). Sumner explains that authenticity requires, on the

agent's part, information and autonomy-i.e., the agent must be making informed autonomous decisions

regarding his or her life. For example, a slave who is born into slavery does not seem to meet either of

the authenticity conditions. The slave did not make a conscious choice to become a slave and probably did not

know that there are any other options available to him or her.

The happiness theory of welfare holds that happiness is not merely pleasure. Instead, happiness seems to be

more along the lines of life satisfaction. Likewise, happiness has both an affective component and a

cognitive component. Sumner defines the affective component as "experiencing the conditions of your life as

fulfilling or rewarding" and the cognitive component as "judging that your life is going well for you, by your

standards for it" (172).


But does the happiness theory of welfare apply to nonhuman animals? According to Sumner, it does not.

Sumner explains that because nonhuman animals are not capable of assessing how well their lives have gone,

"the cognitive component of happiness is therefore beyond the range of many subjects-of-a-life, such as

small children and non-human animals" (146). Sumner explains that nonhuman animals lack the ability to

assess how well their life is going and has gone. Sumner seems to be correct on this point. When we speak of

an animal's happiness we seem to be referring almost exclusively to what Sumner calls the affective component

of happiness, or life satisfaction.

But should we disregard the welfare of animals just because they lack this cognitive ability? According to

Sumner, small children also lack this ability to reflect on their life and make judgments about how well it is going

and has gone. But surely we would consider this inability to be grounds for disregarding their welfare altogether.

Just as we are able to come up with a set of "standard human goods," which, according to Sumner, would

include items such as health, mental and physical functioning, enjoyment, personal achievement, knowledge

or understanding, close personal relationships, personal liberty or autonomy, etc., we could likewise conceive of

such a list for nonhuman animals (180). As Dr. Richard P. Haynes has explained in his paper "Competing

Conceptions of Animal Welfare and Their Ethical Implications for the Treatment of Non-Human Animals" it seems

as though we can assess how well an animal's life is going for that animal (48).


Next, the question is which if any of the popular conceptions of animal welfare held by animal welfare scientists

take into account correspond with the happiness theory of welfare? In this section I will consider the conceptions

of animal welfare advanced by the following scholars: Bernard E. Rollin, David Fraser, Ian J. H. Duncan, and

Michael C. Appleby.

Bernard E. Rollin's concept of welfare is based on an animal's telos-the Aristotelian notion of species' basic

nature. Rollin explains this view in Farm Animal Welfare as "the common-sense insight that 'fish gotta swim and

birds gotta fly.' And suffer if they don't" (17). Rollin is a member of the natural functioning school of animal

welfare. According to this school, an animal's welfare depends on its ability to perform those activities which

are natural to their specific telosi. Rollin's conception of animal welfare does not seem to correspond with

the happiness theory of welfare, primarily because Rollin's conception seems to be objective. Rollin allows for

the prospect that the interests of different species of animals do not correspond, but he does not seem to account

for prospective differences between the interests of members of the same species. Likewise, Rollin's

conception seems to assume that the things which we consider good are predetermined by genetics.

David Fraser argues for preference testing as a way of accounting for the feelings of animals. Feelings, according

to Fraser, have long been ignored by scientists as an important aspect of welfare. In his paper, "Animal Ethics

and the Scientific Study of Animals: Bridging the 'Is' and the 'Ought'," Fraser and Preece cite an example

of preference testing in which it was determined that "caging mink in fur farms does cause the animal

frustration, mainly because they are prevented from swimming" (11).

Fraser's preference testing does not seem to correspond with the happiness theory of welfare. Instead it seems to

be what Sumner calls "the least plausible version" of the desire theory of welfare (113). There are at least two

major problems with preference testing. First of all, as previously discussed, the desire theory is a failed theory

of welfare because, though I may want something, the attainment of that thing is not necessarily good. For

example, imagine you really want to buy a sports car. You cannot imagine anything better than buying a sports

car, and all you can think about is how good your life would be if you bought said sports car. But when you end

up purchasing the sports car you regret it because you could have used that money for food, rent, etc. Buying

the sports car may have given you a brief sense of happiness based on the affective component of happiness, but

not on the cognitive component-i.e., you were really happy when you first bought it, but upon reflecting about

your choice you are no longer happy with that decision. With regards to preference testing, a better example may

be of the man who repeatedly makes a bad decision and ends up regretting it. For example, a man may buy a

fudge sundae every day, primarily because he can not help himself from doing so. It seems that someone

who condones preference testing as a way of measuring welfare would have to say that the man eating the

sundae every day is a good thing despite the fact that it has led to several bad health problems for the man, as

well as regret by the man after each sundae.

Likewise, preference testing fails because it does not meet the information condition of the authenticity

requirement. Basically, preference testing assumes that there is some set of preferences from which the

most beneficial option must come. But preferences do not seem to be so easy to distill. Instead it seems like

such tests would have to consider an infinite number of options that would each be tested against one another

for preference. Additionally, it seems problematic that all hens, for example, would prefer the same type of

cage. Instead, preference testing would require we test the preference of each individual animal of each species

in order to properly discern a particular animal's preferences.

In his article, "A Concept of Welfare Based on Feelings," Ian J. H. Duncan conceived of a "broad working

description of animal welfare"-one that "encompassed the notions of the animal in complete mental and

physical health, the animal in harmony with its environment . . . with the animal's feelings somehow, taken

into account" (85). Duncan explains how feelings fit in with his definition of welfare by explaining how, for

example, "we may be in excellent health, but if we think we have contracted some serious disease . . . then

our welfare may be devastated as we worry about our future" (90). As such, Duncan is considered a member of

the "feelings school" of animal welfare. The main flaw of the feelings school's conception of animal welfare is that

it disregards the animal's welfare as a whole and instead seeks to tie an animal's wellness exclusively with

its feelings. In his article, "A Concept of Welfare Based on Feelings," Duncan claims that, "it is feelings that

govern welfare, and in any research on welfare it is feelings that should be investigated" (97). But Duncan and

the feelings school are likewise remiss in using preference tests as the preferred method of determining how

animals feel. Duncan, however, acknowledges that preference tests are not fail-safe.

In his book Poultry Behaviour and Welfare, Michael C. Appleby explains that "people do not all have the same

concept of welfare" (124), and these varying concepts account for the general public's "variations in attitudes

to animals." Appleby suggests that we need to focus more on how the various conceptions of animal welfare

overlap and less on how they are different. Appleby primarily deals with animal welfare and conceptions of

animal welfare in the descriptive sense. As such, Appleby's treatment of animal welfare is largely unhelpful when

it comes to determining the best conception of animal welfare. It seems that Appleby's conception of animal

welfare is firmly rooted in the conflicting conceptions of the past and does not seem to emanate from any

clear theory of welfare. Instead, Appleby simply explains that a usable conception of animal welfare "will be

most firmly based, and acceptable to the greatest number of people, if they take into account all three concepts

of animal minds, bodies and natures" (Appleby 1999; 40).

Appleby's unwillingness to conceive of a conception of animal welfare that is wholly separate from the

prevailing conceptions of the animal welfare science community highlights the primary problem with animal

welfare scientists. Specifically, animal welfare scientists seek to formulate conceptions of animal welfare which

justify the continued exploitation of animals.


None of the currently popular and most widely accepted accounts of animal welfare are based on the

happiness theory of welfare. As such, they are all problematic and they are generally unhelpful in both abstract

and practical discussions of the how we ought to treat food production animals. A new conception of animal welfare

is needed based on the happiness theory of welfare. Such a conception would take into account both the

affective and cognitive components of happiness but would require the producers of livestock and other animals

to assess an animal's happiness in the cognitive sense. A new conception of animal welfare with strong ties to

a theory of welfare would be more libratory and would be harder to appropriate by the animal welfare

science community as means to justify the continued exploitation of animals.


1. Appleby, M.C., J.A. Mench, and B.O. Hughes. 2004. Poultry Behaviour and Welfare. Cambridge MA, USA:

CABI Publishing.

2. Appleby M. What Should We Do About Animal Welfare? 1999. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

3. Brambell, F.W.R. 1965. Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept

under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems. London: HMSO Cmnd. 2836.

4. Duncan, I.J.H. 2004. "A Concept of Welfare based on Feelings." Pp. 85-101 in G. John Benson and Bernard E.

Rollin (eds.). The Well-Being of Farm Animals: Challenges and Solutions. Oxford: Blackwell.

5. Fraser, D. and R. Preece. 2004. "Animal Ethics and the Scientific Study of Animals: Bridging the 'Is' and the

'Ought.'" Essays in Philosophy (

6. Haynes, R. P. "Competing Conceptions of Animal Welfare and Their Ethical Implications for the Treatment of
non-human animals." Unpublished.

7. Rollin, B.E. 1995. Farm Animal Welfare: Social, Bioethical, and Research Issues. Ames, USA: Iowa State
University Press.

8. Sumner, L. W. 1996. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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