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Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters

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When I visited Malaysia a few years ago, one of my hosts took me aside after a talk I had just given and told me very courteously that I needed to realize one of the enormous cultural differences that existed between Europeans and Malaysians. "To us," she said, "chickens are just food. We don't see them as you see them." That got me thinking. Given that much livestock production is now in developing countries, and likely to be even more so in the future, how can we make sure that animal welfare is given priority many of us think it deserves? Convincing a wealthy American or European to pay more for "high-welfare" food is difficult enough, but why should people battling with poverty, finding enough food for their children, or worrying about climate change and loss of habitat think that the welfare of non-humans matters at all?

The more I thought about the ways in which people in the West make the case for animal welfare, the more I realized that, despite the best of intentions, that case was often not being made as convincingly as it could be. The almost complete absence of animal welfare from international discussions of food security and climate change is evidence of this failure, and it seemed to me that there was a need for some new thinking and some new arguments that could carry more weight across cultural boundaries.

I realized, firstly, that a whole set of potentially important arguments was simply not being made, specifically arguments relating to the benefits to humans of improving animal welfare, which is to say, precisely the arguments that would appeal most to people with more human-centered concerns. Animal welfare is often portrayed as a "cost," something to be paid for, which of course immediately makes it seem affordable only by the privileged wealthy. But by making everyone stakeholders in good animal welfare, we can recruit many people to seeing its importance, even if culturally they do not value animals in themselves. We need to reorient our research programs so that animal welfare is seen as a contributor to things that everyone, whatever their views of animals, wants: to provide healthful, safe food for their children; to work in a pleasing environment; to be able to make a living; and to be safe from pandemics caused by unhealthy animals. Emphasizing the human benefits of good animal welfare does not detract from seeing animal welfare as a good in itself (it's not one or the other). But adding more reasons for people to value animal welfare will benefit more animals.

Secondly, it struck me that, from a scientific view, we understand so little about animal consciousness (and indeed our own consciousness) that to make the claim that we do understand it, and that we now know which animals experience emotions, may not be the best way to make the case for animal welfare. Anthropomorphism (seeing animals as just like humans) and anecdote were assuming a place in the study of animal consciousness that, it seemed to me, leaves the whole area very vulnerable to being completely demolished by logical argument. A particular threat is posed by the so-called "kill-joy" explanations that are increasingly appearing in the philosophical and scientific literature. Kill-joy explanations are simple explanations for what have previously been thought to be examples of complex achievements by animals. A classic example is where the exciting claim that a horse or dog can count and do sums is replaced by the kill-joy explanation that all that the animal is doing is taking cues from a human, who is really doing the sums. Kill-joy explanations are now everywhere, "explaining away" many of the clever things animals were supposed to do, such as reading each other's minds, deceiving each other, and insightfully anticipating their futures.

But kill-joy explanations do not kill off claims of animal consciousness, at least not if we continue to acknowledge how little we actually know about what animals subjectively experience. If we acknowledge that we don't really know whether a particular behavior implies conscious awareness or not, then all the kill-joy explanations in the world will have no effect. For all we know, a horse that takes its cues from its owner's body language is just as emotional and just as conscious as a mathematical genius. I personally see no reason at all why only clever animals should be conscious or have emotions, given that it does not take a great intellect to feel hunger or to experience pain. A very wide range of different animals are potentially part of my "consciousness club," membership of which is still undetermined and therefore unaffected by kill-joy explanations.

It is people who think that we do understand consciousness, and that it is tied to particular abilities, who leave the study of animal consciousness vulnerable to kill-joy explanations. Going beyond what the scientific evidence actually allows us to say will inevitably lead to someone pointing this out. Much better to face up to how little we understand consciousness and examine the evidence from a scientific point of view. It is this search for real evidence that the Colorado biologist Marc Bekoff has wrongly interpreted as my "dismissing" many current studies. What I hope he will come to understand is that my concern is to make the case for animal emotions as watertight as possible and thereby to strengthen it. That is the way science progresses and always has.

It is, perhaps, not a comfortable conclusion to come to that the only scientific view of consciousness is that we don't understand how it arises, nor do we know for certain which animals are conscious. But, paradoxically, this very agnosticism is a better protection against kill-joy explanations than anthropomorphic or ill-founded claims that we definitely do know. If we want to convince the unconvinced philosopher or scientist to take animal welfare seriously, it is science that will do it.

Of course, there is still a role for non-scientific views of animals. Jane Goodall put it perhaps better than anyone when she talked about looking through different windows: the logical window of science and another window, freed of strict logic, that gives a more mystical view. Most of us look at animals through both at some time or another, but it is important not to confuse the two and claim that science can tell us things that, as yet, it clearly cannot.

In a world increasingly concerned with human issues, the welfare of non-human animals needs all the arguments it can get, both those that are animal-centered and those that appeal to human well-being. But it also needs those arguments to be scrupulously clear and correct, or they will, in the end, fall victim to kill-joy explanations and be dismissed as not counting at all. And the losers will be the animals themselves.