The interaction of ethical questions and farm animal welfare science

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingArticle in proceedingsResearch


In the early days of farm animal welfare science it was often claimed that a sharp distinction should be drawn between, on one hand, the science-based study of animal welfare and, on the other hand, ethical investigation of what is right, and what is wrong, in our dealings with animals. However, following debates starting in the early 1990s, it is now widely recognised that scientific assessments of animal welfare simply cannot avoid making ethical assumptions.
Using simple but realistic examples, the presentation will explain how ethical assumptions inform the study and assessment of animal welfare at different levels.
First, and most obviously, it matters a great deal how animal welfare is defined in the first place. Should we think of welfare in terms of animal function, or in terms of the avoidance of pain and other suffering? Or should we focus on the net balance of negative and positive states (pain and enjoyment or pleasure)? Perhaps we should try to assess preference satisfaction, or the extent to which the animal lives in a natural way. By choosing a specific definition of animal welfare the researcher will be taking a stance on what matters in our dealings with animals.
Secondly, the indicators selected as measures of animal welfare may introduce biases which are relevant from an ethical perspective. Thus, indicators connected with pathologies and other states which are signs of pain and other types of physical suffering will inevitably favour production systems which are safe but barren. Would such a narrow focus miss something of ethical importance?
Thirdly, ethical assumptions are hugely important when researchers aggregate their results in an effort to say something about the net welfare of a group of animals. Here decisions have to be taken as to how different aspects of animal welfare should be balanced against each other – for example, the incidence of disease and injury versus the ability to exercise a wide range of natural behaviours. Difficult trade-offs may also have to be struck between the
situation of the worst off animals in a group and the general welfare of the flock, often defined in terms of average welfare.
Finally, it matters, ethically, how scientific uncertainty is dealt with. Many welfare
researchers, for example, regard it as highly likely, but not absolutely certain that farm animals are unconscious until after birth. However, would it be ethically advisable to exercise caution here? Should we assume, unless and until we are shown to be mistaken, that unborn animals may well be conscious, and protect them accordingly?
Following the presentation of these ethical issues it will be argued that if we are to maintain the objectivity of welfare science, animal welfare researchers need to present their underlying ethical assumptions in a transparent way. Transparency of this kind allows potential users of research to assess its wider ethical significance and importance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAnimal welfare and ethics: From principle to practice : Proceedings of the 2012 RSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar
Number of pages10
Place of PublicationDeakin West ACT
PublisherRSPCA Australia
Publication date2012
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventRSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar - National Convention Centre, Canberra, Australia
Duration: 28 Feb 2012 → …
Conference number: 2012


ConferenceRSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar
LocationNational Convention Centre
Periode28/02/2012 → …

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