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Ethical Treatment of Animals (July 2015): Capabilities

By Walter Hogan and Eric Owen


Findings concerning the cognitive capabilities of animals have obvious relevance to questions regarding treatment.  Scientists testing animal brains and nervous systems and psychologists and ethologists studying animal behavior seek to improve understanding of how animals’ minds work; their capacity to experience physical pain and emotional distress; their capacity to learn; and much more.  Animal protection advocates often stake out a minimum level of awareness, consciousness, or sentience, at which animals are deserving of greater consideration.

Victoria Braithwaite’s Do Fish Feel Pain? explores the title’s question in detail, with explanations of research conducted by her and other biologists, all in a manner accessible to nonspecialists.  Using clever and elegant experiments, Braithwaite and fellow investigators have demonstrated that fish almost certainly experience significant distress from being caught on hooks or hauled up in nets.  Braithwaite and her colleagues have advised the fisheries and aquaculture industries on more humane ways of harvesting fish protein.  Animal behaviorist Marian Stamp Dawkins is renowned for her innovative studies of the preferences of farm animals.  Many of her findings have led to improved conditions for mammals and poultry being raised for food.  In Why Animals Matter: Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare, and Human Well-Being, Dawkins expresses skepticism as to whether animal consciousness can be determined.  She believes that understanding an animal’s requirements allows the animal’s handler to ensure its welfare, without the need for establishing consciousness.  Like Temple Grandin and Victoria Braithwaite, Dawkins is concerned for the welfare of animals being raised for food, both for the sake of the animal and because of the diminished quality of food from traumatized or unhealthy animals.

Cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff does not favor Dawkins’s conservative assessment of animal consciousness.  A practicing vegan, Bekoff is an animal protection advocate who believes that animals are sentient and conscious, and that they experience rich and complex feelings, as indicated by the title of his book The Emotional Lives of Animals.  Bekoff mixes animal anecdotes with scientific evidence to support his claims for animal awareness.  In Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, Bekoff and coauthor Jessica Pierce describe their observations of animals that appear to demonstrate fair play, reciprocity, cooperation, trust, and other social behaviors often considered foundations of morality.

Philosopher Gary Steiner explores animal morality from the perspective of Western philosophical tradition in Animals and the Moral Community.  Reviewing the animal assessments of classical and European philosophers, Steiner concludes that an enduring tendency to equate moral worth with rationality has led philosophers astray.  The proper basis for establishing the moral status of animals, asserts Steiner, is sentience, which he defines as the capacity to experience pleasure and suffer pain.  He advocates for moral parity of all sentient beings.  Another philosopher, Mark Rowlands, reaches rather similar conclusions from a different approach in his closely reasoned Can Animals Be Moral?  Surveying the mental qualities generally cited as relevant for determining moral significance, such as autonomy, consciousness, and self-consciousness, Rowlands concludes that one need only be capable of acting on moral feelings and behaving for moral reasons to qualify as a moral subject.

Works Cited