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Making the World a Better Place for Animals: Animal Rights or Animal Welfare Science?

Posted On: September 8, 2015

Many of us want to see a better world for animals. A world where animals are never cruelly and intentionally abused, where dogs are not pitted against each other in organised fights. A world where animals are never neglected, where horses are never left to starve to death on farms and abandoned on hillsides. A world where animals raised for food are treated humanely and have a life worth living, never being treated as insentient ‘animal machines’, a term popularised by Ruth Harrison in the ground-breaking book which questioned the rise of factory farming. A world where animals are not killed by hunters inflicting pain and death in order give themselves pleasure and reinforce their flimsy egos. The question is, how do we achieve this?

Some say that the only way is to grant animals rights. Advocates for animal rights see the issue as a simple matter of moral reason and choice, and some make correspondingly straightforward and clear statements. Animals are not ours to use. Animals are not ours to eat, or to derive entertainment from, or to make our sporting partners or companions. Such arguments are attractive in their simplicity and may make excellent campaign slogans. Some might argue that they are over-simplistic and naïve. They are certainly anthropocentric, appealing to a very human desire for straightforward rule-based morality. They are also extremely useful in raising the profile of issues of animal use. It is often campaigning by animal rights groups that focuses a bright spotlight on cases of animal abuse and poor welfare.

Yet it could be argued that continual repetition of animal rights messages, however passionately, doesn’t appear to have produced very much improvement in the lives of the animals that share our planet. Cruelty, neglect and gross over-riding of animal interests in favour of human interests continues.

Let’s be clear. Animals are sentient. They feel pain and suffer, and also feel pleasure. The concept of animal sentience is now widely accepted among scientists (e.g. the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness) and by legislators and policy makers (e.g. the European Commission Treaty of Lisbon). Humane members of the general public have, of course, accepted this notion for decades at least. Anyone who has contact with real living animals accepts the concepts of their suffering and pleasure. As sentient beings, animals deserve our respect for their interests- in having a good life, or at least a life worth living. They deserve protection.

I would argue that the biggest positive changes in animal welfare have occurred when credible and robust evidence of animal suffering has accompanied and supported campaigning on animal protection, a two-pronged approach if you like. Campaigning organisations can raise an animal welfare issue in the public consciousness, and animal welfare scientists can provide powerful factual evidence to present to those who have the power to change policy, legislation and practice. In my opinion the greatest achievements in animal protection have resulted from this approach. Consider the ground-breaking incorporation of the well-known and globally influential five freedoms into the UK Animal Welfare Act 2006. This legislation imposes a duty of care towards animals on all those responsible for them; it requires animal interests to be respected. It can be argued that this approach is also responsible for the incorporation of animal sentience into the European Commission Treaty of Lisbon, the (albeit slow) abandoning of the battery cage system of egg production, and the hugely encouraging movement by global food corporations towards adoption of animal welfare standards.

The reality is we do not have to face a choice of either animal rights or animal welfare approaches in our work in animal protection. Whatever one’s position on the question of whether animals should have rights, campaigning organisations and animal welfare scientists can and should work together to make the world a better place for animals.