17 March 2004

Marian Stamp Dawkins on Animal Suffering

Let us not mince words: Animal welfare involves the subjective feelings of animals. The growing concern for animals in laboratories, farms, and zoos is not just concern about their physical health, important though that is. Nor is it just to ensure that animals function properly, like well-maintained machines, desirable though that may be. Rather, it is a concern that some of the ways in which humans treat other animals cause mental suffering and that these animals may experience "pain," "boredom," "frustration," "hunger," and other unpleasant states perhaps not totally unlike those we experience.

This would appear to put scientists in a dilemma. If we insist that such subjective language has no place in science and that the mental states of nonhuman animals cannot be studied empirically, then we opt out of all debates about animal welfare, leaving the formulation of laws and regulations concerning the treatment of animals to those (often nonscientists) who may have no such scruples. On the other hand, if we feel that laws and regulations should be based on scientific knowledge about the animals . . . , we may feel we have a duty to step into these muddy waters and say what we can, even if we then risk being called unscientific. The purpose of this . . . article is to argue that we do not, in fact, have to choose between scientific respectability and practical considerations. A middle way is possible. We can acknowledge the genuine difficulty of ascertaining what a nonhuman animal feels and yet attempt to attain a scientific understanding of its feelings. Indeed, we should do so not only because we will thus promote the welfare of animals but because the study of subjective feelings is properly part of biology.

(Marian Stamp Dawkins, "From an Animal's Point of View: Motivation, Fitness, and Animal Welfare," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 [March 1990]: 1-9, at 1 [citation omitted])

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