Ethology applied to animal ethics

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Hanno Würbel
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
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According to modern animal welfare legislation, animals should be protected from suffering and lasting harm not for the benefit of us humans as in earlier anthropocentric conceptions, but in their own interest. The driving force behind animal protection is our empathy with animals which triggers feelings of compassion. Empathy with animals most likely is a psychological side-effect of adaptive empathy among humans, and its expression is largely determined by the degree of similarity between animals and us in morphology and behaviour. As a result, compassion with animals is vulnerable to anthropocentric bias, prejudice, and deception, and animal protection based on compassion is likely to be unfair towards animals. Moreover, from an ethological perspective, protecting animals in their own interest represents true altruism which places considerable ethical demand on us. However, there may be hidden selfish intentions that question the altruistic nature of animal protection, while at the same time facilitating its implementation. For example, animal protection could help to avoid unpleasant feelings induced by witnessing cruel actions towards animals. Alternatively, exhibiting a caring personality towards animals could represent human social behaviour that pays off indirectly through building up a caring reputation. It is, therefore, important to distinguish between our intention to protect animals (which may be partly selfish) and true animal protection that needs to be justified biologically by values that apply to the animals. Based on the sentientist nature of animal welfare legislation, the greatest challenges to applied ethologists, and important ones as testified by this special issue, are (i) to determine sentience in animals and (ii) to establish valid and reliable measures of affective states such as suffering and well-being. However, there are promising measures of animal welfare beyond measures of affective states. In particular, biologically meaningful measures of ‘integrity of form and function’ may provide powerful indicators of animal welfare. The integrity concept originates in biocentric ethics and goes beyond sentientism, as it can also be applied to non-sentient animals and even plants. However, when applied to (potentially) sentient animals, it appears to be consistent with our common sense notion of animal welfare which also respects the animals’ ‘nature’ or ‘telos’. Moreover, the integrity concept would relieve scientists from solving the ‘hard problem’ of animal consciousness first, or from establishing valid measures of demand or aversion that are notoriously difficult to establish. In particular, measures of behavioural integrity could offer an opportunity for applied ethology to strengthen its impact on ethical and legal decision-taking, thereby advancing animal welfare without compromising scientific credibility.


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