A map of controversies about animal welfare

Ethical controversies around animal welfare

Animal welfare has been a hotly debated issue since its emergence in the 1960s, not least because it somehow "revives" ethical questions about the relationship that humans have with animals and the status attributed to them.
The moral status of the animal is a source of debate because it opens up the question of the animal's self-interest and the ethical responsibility of humans towards animals. It is not possible to question animal welfare without raising the question of establishing a relationship with the animal, placing it in a productive purpose and killing it. Should the assessment of animal welfare be concerned with the average general welfare of a herd or should it give more importance to the few animals in critical situations? On what criteria will we determine ethically acceptable interventions on animals even though they generate some suffering? Do we improve animal welfare based on means, standards applicable to all farming systems, or do we focus on outcomes and the consequences of human actions on animals to adjust practices and interventions? All these questions contribute to the ethical issues raised by animal welfare.
Reflecting on the moral status of animals and the ethical questions raised by the relationship we are building is part of Western thinking resulting from the Enlightenment. It is in fact a particular way of organising the world, which Descola [1] calls naturalist, which leads us to an ethical concern for animal welfare. This way of organising the world leads to "making identifications by distributing qualities to those who exist on the basis of the various possibilities of attributing to another indeterminate person a physicality and interiority similar or dissimilar to those experienced by every human being". In other words, we recognize similar biological properties (physicality) between humans and animals, but we more readily hide behind the thesis of human exception when it comes to considering consciousness, culture, spirituality (example of interiority) in the animal world. Finally, animal welfare leads us to question the boundaries between man and animal.
The main currents of animal ethics in the Western world in general and in France in particular are the subject of lively controversy as to the way in which the human-animal relationship is viewed. All animal ethics are based on four possible orientations: deontological, consequentialist, affectivist, or naturalistic (see figure n°1).

figure 1 The main ethical orientations

image orientationethiqueanglais.png (15.9kB)

An ethic is deontological when it considers that an action is good if it is universalizable and done out of duty or out of respect for a standard. In other words, any human action is judged according to whether or not it complies with standards or duties pre-established by a group or company. The proponents of animal deontology invite us to define rules of conduct, laws that govern our relationship with animals.
Deontological ethics is opposed to a consequentialist ethics which proposes to judge human actions only according to their consequences. It is a question here of observing which type of consequence matters to the person, consequence for man exclusively, or consequence for the human-animal community.
While deontological or consequentialist ethics appeal to reason, affectivist ethics leaves the primacy of feelings to make a moral judgment.

Reason versus feeling as the basis of our ethics is what opposes Hume to Kant. Hume thus positions the moral sense of humanity as ultimate in moral judgment: "It seems obvious that the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be represented by reason, but relate entirely to human feelings and affections, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties." [2].

Hume does not question reason in moral judgment, but for him it is only a motive for action, "cold and unattached", which limits itself to directing the impulse by showing us the means adapted to the ends. If reason can recognize the true from the false, it cannot recognize the good from the evil. The feeling in the relationship that is expressed at the sight of an animal in a state of well-being or malaise is a moral guide for the proponents of this affectivist ethic.

"Certainly reason, when fully assisted and enhanced, may be sufficient to instruct us in the pernicious or helpful tendency of qualities and actions; it cannot, however, be sufficient to morally blame or approve of an action. (...) What is required is feeling (...). This feeling can be a feeling for the happiness of humanity and a resentment of their misery; (...) therefore reason teaches us the tendencies of many actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favor of those that are useful and beneficial" [2].

Kant, unlike Hume, considers that a sentimental impulse, even if good, can lead to unjust acts. He therefore argues that he should not rely on sentiment but on reason.

"Love as an inclination cannot be commanded; but to do good precisely out of duty, when there is no inclination to do it, and even when a natural and invincible aversion opposes it, is a practical and non-pathological love that resides in the will, not in the inclination of one's sensibility, in principles of action and not in softening compassion" [3].

Finally, other philosophers question ethical approaches that place the human-animal relationship in a moral status. Opposed to forms of relationship that lead to the use of animals as objects of production or as pets, they claim to base a moral judgment on the principles of naturalness of man and animal. These proponents of the naturalist ethic consider our relationship with animals in our western societies to be harmful to both humans and animals. They suggest restoring a relationship with the animal proposed in hunter-gatherer societies.

Animal ethics thus take a predominantly deontological, consequentialist, affectivist or naturalistic orientation, sometimes trying to position themselves in between. Moreover, they fall between a zoocentric orientation, oriented towards the animal and its well-being, and an anthropocentric orientation, considering animal well-being only if it meets human well-being.

Figure n°2 presents the different animal ethics that animate the debates between philosophers, professionals of the agricultural world depending on the actor, whether they are, for example, breeders or distributors, consumers, militant organisations or researchers.

figure 2 the animal ethics

image ethicsanglais.png (16.4kB)

The abolitionist ethic leads to the rejection of all animal use.
The deontologist ethic, without questioning the use of animals, suggests that such use should be governed by legislative standards.
The welfarist-utilitarian ethic proposes evaluating our actions with regards to the global well-being produced in humans and animals.
The neo-welfarist ethic proposes a position between abolitionist ethics and deontological ethics. Since the abolitionist approach is not socially acceptable, defining standards for animal husbandry is a first step before animal liberation.
Welfarist anthropocentric ethics advocate animal welfare to the extent that it favours production, whereas a-welfarist anthropocentric ethics rather considers animal welfare as a constraint unfavourable to production.
The care ethic advances the consideration of our feelings in our choices with regard to animals.
The ethic of giving and giving back sees the breeder and the animal as a system where giving and giving back are exchanged.
the utilitarian naturalistic ethic questions the relationship that man weaves with the animal and invites us to rebuild a "healthier" and more "mature" relationship based on respect for the naturalness of man and animal.

[1] Descola, P. (2006). Par delà nature et culture. Paris : Gallimard.
[2] Hume, D. (1777). An enquiry into the principles of morals. Edinburgh : Printed for Adam Black and William Tait.
[3] Kant, E. (2011). Fondements de la métaphysique des mœurs. Paris : LCI.

Controversies around the scientific concepts related to animal welfare

To characterise animal welfare scientifically, various concepts have been put forward, but none of them are really unanimously accepted by the scientific world. Several definitions, several factors seeking to objectify it, several assessment methodologies have been proposed. They are summarized on the figure 3.

figure 3 the scientific controversies about animal welfare

image controversesscientifiquesanglais.png (0.2MB)

1. Health criteria and production performance

In the past, veterinarians and farmers considered animal welfare through physical and bodily aspects. In this approach, the health criteria used to assess animal welfare vary according to the type of production and most often indicate a combination of adverse factors: for example, a high prevalence of lameness in a dairy herd may be the result of poor soils in the exercise area, inadequate bedding and many factors related to animal husbandry. These health criteria can be supplemented with criteria that indicate a variation in production performance, e.g. a deterioration in body condition score, reduced milk production, reduced growth. Health or production criteria are more easily identified when the problem is significant or when it affects a large number of animals in the herd: they are therefore criteria that may be later and less sensitive than behaviour. However, these criteria can be objectively assessed from information in the farm records, such as the herd mortality rate recorded in the farm register or the milk cell count from milk recording results, or from health status data. However, production criteria are complex to assess because zootechnical performance varies according to the genetic potential of the animal and can be compensated for by other management elements. Thus, the good production level of the animals does not guarantee a high level of welfare in the herd. It does not mean that the mental state of the animal is not affected.

2. From pain and suffering to positive emotions

Historically, during the second half of the 19th century, the animal welfare movements tackled the suffering inflicted on the animal and were concerned about the animal's malaise.
Some researchers [1] propose considering the animal's well-being through the limitation of suffering or pain. Respecting the animal's well-being would then be tantamount to avoiding its malaise.
Pain implies an unpleasant emotion associated with actual or potential tissue damage. It can also have psycho-somatic origins; in this case there is no tissue damage although the individual has the perception of physical pain.
Pain presupposes the possibility for the living being to "express" an emotional experience. If it is recognized in birds and mammals, it is also demonstrated in invertebrates such as the octopus or certain crustaceans [2].
Pain and suffering are often equated in everyday language. However, unlike pain, suffering implies an awareness of painful phenomena. However, it does not necessarily imply physical aggression. Anxiety can result from a malaise with regard to the environment in which the animal is found.
What makes it possible to claim that certain animal species have pain or suffering and others do not? The poorly evolved cortex in fish suggests that they cannot feel pain due to the absence of a neocortex. However, recent work [3] has shown that it can feel discomfort. It is even proposed that the experience of pain in animals with brains less complex than the human brain (without necocortex) is more intense due to the absence of regulatory phenomena.
Although it is difficult to have irrefutable proof that the animal suffers, in Switzerland, the Federal Ethics Commission for Biotechnology in the non-human field has issued recommendations of a moral nature in the use of fish, considering that no research shows an absence of sensitivity to pain.
However, should pain and suffering that may lead to the expression of negative feelings or emotions be the sole criteria of animal welfare? In other words, is animal welfare limited to the absence of discomfort?
Can the animal also express positive emotions? Grandin and Johnson consider this [4]. For these authors, the animal feels seven emotions, emotions that are part of the emotional system of all mammals: three of them generate discomfort: anger, fear, panic, and the other four of well-being: sexual desire, care, play and curiosity, pleasure. The animal's well-being would therefore not be limited to the mere absence of expression of negative emotions.
By considering the emotional state of the animal, researchers [5] propose to characterize animal welfare by the concept of quality of life. The animal's quality of life is determined by the overall balance between pleasant and unpleasant feelings and emotions during the animal's lifetime. Emotional experiences that are evaluated by humans may relate to nutrition, environment, health, the ability to express behaviours (which reflect boredom or frustration) or mental state (such as mental effects resulting from a feeling of hunger or thirst). Measuring quality of life is fraught with difficulties because it involves listing all the emotional manifestations in an animal's life, weighing the value of each of them in terms of their importance in terms of survival, or urgency, and weighting them according to the animal in question. However, the notion of quality of life has the advantage of thinking about the animal's well-being over time and going beyond the only moments when the animal is likely to be in a situation of suffering.

3. Coping: being able to meet its needs

The approach considering feelings and emotions as the key elements of animal welfare has the advantage of taking into account both the physical and mental aspects of welfare. The problem, however, is that it is impossible to access the subjective experience of the animal.

On the other hand, a living being may not have negative emotions while being in a state of malaise (when, for example, it is affected by certain diseases, or if it is unable to grow or reproduce). Other approaches are then put forward in an attempt to characterise animal welfare, which is seen in terms of the animal's ability to "copy" its environment, i.e. to be able to meet its needs and thus maintain mental and physical stability [6].
6] Behaviour can be an early indicator of possible degradation of welfare. The animal's behaviour can indicate the correct or inappropriate adaptation of the farming conditions. However, behaviour can also be considered as a means for the animal to adapt. Stereotypes can thus be considered as an indicator of a malaise as well as a means of combating this malaise.

For example, the rising or lying behaviour of dairy cows is a recognised indicator of the correct adjustment of stalls. On arrival at the milking parlour, refusal to move forward can indicate the presence of a visual obstacle on the circuit. Oral behaviours of the calf can be used to measure the effects of feeding behaviour. The main difficulty is to choose the right behavioural indicator and to be familiar with the determinants of this behaviour. The behaviour of the animals with each other (social behaviour) is also an indicator of the quality of their environment: for example, repeated blows between animals around feeding areas can reveal a competitive situation that may be linked to a lack of space at the trough. Experimental work has been able to relate the animals' behaviour to physiological variations measured in particular by blood, urine or saliva measurements. These variations (increase in heart rate, blood or salivary corticoids for example) reflect physiological adaptation mechanisms linked to stress, but they are difficult to carry out in breeding and complex to interpret. Since Grandin's work for the American Meat Institute in 1991, the use of behavioural indicators has developed in various applied audits. Slips or falls have also been used in self-assessment tools for transport or slaughter quality. Whatever the type of measurement, observation of animal behaviour requires prior training to produce quality, reproducible and repeatable information.

4. Natural living conditions
In this approach, the animal should be able to live in accordance with its natural attitudes and behaviour [7]. Such an approach leads to questioning the natural environment in which the animal evolved. However, are the characteristics of well-being the same for domestic animals as for their wild ancestors? How does the domestication process influence them?

5. The human-animal relationship
The analysis of animal welfare can also involve the analysis of the human-animal relationship. Indeed, the relationship between humans and animals is both a risk factor for animal welfare but also the result of the welfare felt by the animal during its experiences of situations or interventions that involve the relationship with humans. The behaviour of the breeder in daily husbandry situations or during interventions has a strong impact on the animal's reactivity. However, it is still little used in tools for evaluation in animal husbandry, and can be a hindrance to its use by some breeders because it calls into question their own practices. However, the analysis of human-animal relationship practices appears to be an important factor for progress in improving animal welfare.
Finally, if the animal gives us its "point of view" on the way it perceives its environment through its behaviour, its sanitary state, or the variations in physiological parameters, the interpretation of these elements can be difficult because of the multiple factors involved and the existing adaptation or regulation phenomena. Well-being is a multidimensional and complex concept that it seems illusory to reduce to a universal list of criteria. The number and diversity of criteria used in scientific work to objectify animal welfare reflect the difficulty of putting forward a unitary theory. The choice of evaluation criteria is not neutral and marked disagreements punctuate the statements made in symposia and research papers.
While animal welfare can be partly objectified, it is also partly the result of observations made by a human who interprets the feelings of a non-human. In this respect, therefore, the farmer has a key position in taking into account the welfare of his animals: he is in contact with them, he observes them, which is an activity in its own right in his profession. Does this predispose him to a good observation of animal welfare? In other words, is he a privileged observer to assess the state of well-being of his animals? The quality of his observations is strongly associated with the empathic posture he can show. On the one hand, it is a question of interpreting the animal's behaviour while avoiding a naïve anthropomorphism that would lead him to project strictly human specificities onto the animal, as well as a minimisation of an animal that would then be conceived as an object.

[1] Chapouthier, G. (2010). La douleur sous l'angle de l'évolution des espèces. In J.L. Guichet (Ed.), Douleur animale, douleur humaine, données scientifiques, perspectives anthropologiques, questions éthiques. (pp. 230-243). Versailles: Quae.
[2] Magee, B. and Elwood, R. W. (2013). Shock avoidance by discrimination learning in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas) is consistent with a key criterion for pain. J. Exp. Biol. 216, 353-358.
[3] Sneddon, L.U, Braithwaite, V.A., & Gentle, M.J., (2014). Do fishes have nociceptors? Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system.
[4] Grandin, T., & Johnson, C. (2009). Animals make us human. Creating the best life for animals. New York : Mariner Books.
[5] Mc Millan, F.D. (2005). The concept of quality of life in animals. In F.D. Mc Millan (Ed.), Mental Health and well-being in animals, (pp. 183-200). UK : Blackwell Publishing.
[6] Broom, D.M. (2008). Welfare assessment and relevant ethical decisions: key concepts. Annual Review of Biomedical Sciences, 10, 79-90.