Animal welfare science and ecology are both generally concerned with the lives of animals, however they differ in their objectives and scope; the former studies the welfare of animals considered ‘domestic’ and under the domain of humans, while the latter studies wild animals with respect to ecological processes. Each of these approaches addresses certain aspects of the lives of animals living in the world though neither, we argue, tells us important information about the welfare of wild animals. This paper argues for the development of a new scientific discipline ‘welfare biology’ to address these issues and more, given the deficiencies of pre-existing life science disciplines to research the subject. Welfare biology is the study of the welfare of all living beings who have a welfare, with a value orientation toward promoting that welfare, regardless of the beings’ situation or relationship to humans and our activities.
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Different conceptions of welfare may change how animals are considered within a given normative theory – for example, bodily health and integrity might be considered objective goods in animals because of their intrinsic value, or instrumental toward other ends such as the reduction of unnecessary suffering or frustration of preferences (Nussbaum 2006, pp. 394–395). The aim of this paper is not to discriminate between these positions, so we assume that general markers of good and bad welfare are morally important.
Exactly which animals are considered sentient and for what reasons we shall address in a later section.
Cognitive ethology is sometimes mistaken for the pre-existing field of comparative animal psychology given their shared objectives in understanding the contents of animal minds. Major differences between the two relate to their conceptual orientations; cognitive ethologists tend to assume the presence of consciousness in their account of animal cognition, while it is common for comparative psychologists to limit their discussion of mentalistic events. Other differences include experimental variation, research methodology, and limitations that scientists working in these fields might expect to encounter (Vauclair 1997, pp. 36–38, Allen and Bekoff 2007, p. 309).
Associated with the positivist view that the inclusion of non-epistemic values threatens ‘good science’ by increasing inductive risk (the risk of error in accepting or rejecting scientific hypotheses), expressed by Hempel and many others (Douglas2000, p. 561).
e.g., large farm mammals are generally given much greater priority than other animal groups in the discussion of our ethical obligations toward animals (Walker et al. 2014, p. 86). Note, however, that in recent years farmed fish have increasingly been studied with reference to welfare concepts (Lund et al. 2007, Walker et al. 2014, p. 90).
Held in addition to the common intuition that doing harm is ethically worse than allowing harm to occur.
The term ‘balance’ is often used as a metaphor in fields such as population ecology to describe the concept of equilibrium. However, its use has been criticised for being restrictive, value laden, and a general hindrance to understanding relations between natural processes (Sterelny and Griffiths 1999, p. 266, Cuddington 2001).
Parallels between these two movements have increased more rapidly in recent years as the environmental impacts of industrial animal agriculture have become more apparent.
Both fields do, of course, overlap in their practice, but it is generally the case that conservation science deals with populations of animals in nature while welfare science deals domestic or human-affiliated animals.
‘Good’ defined by the values held by participants in the movement.
E.g., Peter Singer’s argument from bad consequences (that he later rejects) (Singer, 2015, p. 326, 2016), Tom Regan’s appeal to competence (Regan 2004, pp. 357 & 361), Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s ‘flourishing’ argument applied to sovereign wild animal communities (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, pp. 165–167), and Rosalind Hursthouse’s appeal to the virtue of respectful love (Hursthouse 2011, p. 133).
In addition to other circumstances, such as disease, which we shall discuss later in this section.
‘Survive and reproduce’ meaning ‘survive to be able to successfully reproduce in accordance with one’s evolved life history strategy’, as survival does not benefit gene transmission ipso facto.
The word ‘typically’ is used to acknowledge that there is occasionally a substantial inclusive fitness benefit to one’s continued survival post-reproduction such that the selection of traits to enhance their survival might still occur, albeit on a lesser basis.
Unless they arise contingently with other selected traits as sometimes happens.
Analysis of trade-offs between these two contrasting reproductive strategies has been termed r/K selection theory (in which r represents a species’ maximal intrinsic rate of natural growth, and K represents the carrying capacity of their local environment) (MacArthur and Wilson 1967, Pianka 1970, pp. 292–293). This method of life history classification has since received criticism for oversimplifying the study of population dynamics and producing empirically unsound predictions (Stearns 1992, p. 202, Reznick et al., 2002).
This does not imply that all other offspring members will die prematurely, for many will plausibly survive into their adulthood yet fail to successfully reproduce. Even if all offspring die prematurely a population can remain stable so long as this deficit is compensated for by other reproducing individuals within that same population.
The simple state of nonexistence is rarely considered an intrinsic source of disvalue, so we shall focus on the deprivation element of being dead.
Barring the acceptance of particular theories of consciousness, such as panpsychism, in which sentience is an intrinsic property of certain natural phenomena rather than an evolved function.
Additionally, it is not clear when sentience first emerged in the tree of life. One view, defended in Feinberg and Mallatt’s neuroevolutionary account of consciousness, posits that sentience evolved progressively throughout the phylogenetic history of vertebrates, but first appeared very early on during the Cambrian explosion (dating back some 560 or 540–520 mya) (Feinberg and Mallatt 2016, pp. 51 & 117, Godfrey-Smith 2017, p. 63).
A widespread example of such a theory supporting mutliple realizability is functionalism, which identifies mental states in terms of the functional roles they play within an organism (Putnam 1975).
E.g., even if we assume a 0.01 likelihood that terrestrial arthropods have a mental welfare, and if they do, that their moral standing is only 0.01 compared to a mammal, the case for considering their suffering might be between 10 and 10,000 times that of all extant mammals (Horta, 2010d, p.6) (Soryl, 2020, p.2). These conservative figures are intended to show the risks of ignoring the possible sentience of certain animals belonging to populous taxonomic groups, such as insects and fish.
E.g., rescuing and rehabilitating injured and sick wild animals, caring for orphaned infants who are unlikely to survive independently, or assisting animals who are victims of natural disaster. Or even small actions that assist wild animals living in urban environments, such as the regular maintenance and cleaning of bird feeders which both helps starving birds and reduces the transmission of avian disease (Jones and James Reynolds 2008, p. 268, Robb et al. 2008, p. 481).
Similar circumstances emerge in nature when there are temporarily abundant resources which cause overpopulation termed ‘Malthusian checks’.
This also involves addressing questions about animal sentience, and possibly even incorporating uncertainty as a variable affecting our conception of welfare, given our earlier discussion about insects and fish.
Compassionate conservation is a good example of this, as well as the more recent proposal of conservation welfare. For examples, see; (Beausoleil et al., 2018; Bekoff 2002; Bekoff and Elzanowski 1997; Bekoff and Jamieson 1996; Fraser 2010; Paquet and Darimont 2010; Ramp and Bekoff 2015; Wallach et al., 2015, 2018).
Alternatively, one might acknowledge the problem of WWAS and accept the position that wild animals have a negative welfare yet reject the onus of responsibility placed on humans to aid them. This position has been argued, and (in the authors view) convincingly refuted, in the following texts; (Faria 2015; Palmer 2015).
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We are very grateful for the constructive and insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper from two anonymous reviewers.
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Soryl, A.A., Moore, A.J., Seddon, P.J. et al. The Case for Welfare Biology. J Agric Environ Ethics 34, 7 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-021-09855-2