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Death is a Welfare Issue

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It is commonly asserted that “death is not a welfare issue” and this has been reflected in welfare legislation and policy in many countries. However, this creates a conflict for many who consider animal welfare to be an appropriate basis for decision-making in animal ethics but also consider that an animal’s death is ethically significant. To reconcile these viewpoints, this paper attempts to formulate an account of death as a welfare issue. Welfare issues are issues that refer to evaluations concerning an animal’s interests. This includes evaluations that refer only to comparisons between the presence and absence of states, including positive states. This means that an animal’s death may be a welfare issue insofar as it leads to the exclusion of relevant positive states. This allows us to deny that death is necessarily not a welfare issue.

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  1. This concept of states can be a broad concept, including events, actions, and interventions. As described at more length below, this concept includes, but is not limited to, states that are present at the time of the evaluation, though this may be the case for scientific evaluations.

  2. Or at least that playing has to be justified by the avoidance of negative states, such as the expectation that cardiovascular effects would decrease the chance of later pathology sufficiently, or by benefits to others, such as to the owners, in a way that seems to fail to capture the entirety of why people play with their dogs (or at least for myself).

  3. One might use a numerical representation, but this number would either refer to an indicator, such as cortisol, the relation of which to the actual severity of a state is not clearly proportional to these quantities or be based on a unit of subjective assessment. For example, if welfare was defined in terms of subjective ratings or preferences, then this might allow quantification. Such units do not conflict with the thesis of this paper because they involve a comparison that is inherent in the unit.

  4. It is argued below that cases in which this is apparently done actually involve tacit comparisons with non-existence.

  5. In fact, a lot of the debates in animal welfare, and animal ethics more widely, may come about because different people’s evaluation of a state involve comparisons with different other states. For example, the evaluation of beak trimming is different depending on whether one compares beak trimming to healthy beaks or to injurious pecking; similarly, the value of life in which an animal is insentient may depend on whether it is compared to a life of sentience with overall positive experiences or a life of sentience with overall negative experiences.

  6. This is not to say that there is a concrete thing that can be called an “absence-of-a-state” that can be identified or evaluated per se. It is merely to observe that states can be legitimately compared to their absence.

  7. This comparison is heuristic rather than a strict claim: there are other differences between pain and death, since the value of pain is arguably intrinsically negative, whereas the value of death is relative to the states that would otherwise have occurred.

  8. In this paper euthanasia is taken to mean killing an animal in its own (welfare) interests. The humaneness of the death may be another condition of an act of killing being euthanasia, though this might be subsumed in evaluation of the animal’s interests (this would allow that, if an animal is in extremis it may still be euthanasia to kill an animal in a manner that is not perfectly humane and would not be considered appropriate in another context. For example, shooting a suffering wild animal might be more in the animal’s interests than catching and transporting it to where it can be euthanased by barbiturate overdose, even though in the latter option the death itself might be more humane).

  9. For example, on an experience-based definition of value, a life of insentience might be considered to be neither worth living nor worth avoiding, and so death is “neutral” in comparison with this life. Other views may think that an insentient life is still valuable and/or may not allow that life ever has neutral value.

  10. An animal may be thought to additionally have non-welfare interests: for example a human animal may have a preference the fulfilment of which is independent of any effect on his or her welfare, such as interests based on preferences regarding its offspring. These might be treated either as being outside of the welfare paradigm or as a further complication additional to the above account.

  11. The presence of subjective preferences or expectation of nonhuman animals concerning death therefore may be a sufficient condition of making death a welfare issue (if such preferences are considered valuable and nonhuman animals are considered to hold those preferences). However, unless the content of present subjective preferences are considered to be the sole determinant of welfare (which would be an uncommon position in animal welfare thinking: an injury is usually considered to be or cause poor welfare, whether or not animals have an explicit preference not to sustain that injury), the possibility remains that there may be an alternate account of death as a welfare issue, for example in terms of a more objective sense of reasons for living or of deprivation. Therefore the absence of preferences for life in an animal does not necessarily entail that death is not a welfare issue for that animal.


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The author would like to thank Zuzana Deans, Richard Haynes, Mickey Gjerris, Andrew Knight, David Main, Anna Olsson, Liz Paul, Michael Reiss, Ruud ter Meulen, and four independent reviewers for their constructive comments, the RCVS Trust for funding the original research and BSAVA Petsavers for funding the position during which these findings were published.

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Correspondence to James W. Yeates.

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Yeates, J.W. Death is a Welfare Issue. J Agric Environ Ethics 23, 229–241 (2010).

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