'More than a feeling': An empirical investigation of hedonistic accounts of animal welfare

Jesse Robbins, Becca Franks, Marina A G von Keyserlingk
PloS One 2018, 13 (3): e0193864
Many scientists studying animal welfare appear to hold a hedonistic concept of welfare -whereby welfare is ultimately reducible to an animal's subjective experience. The substantial advances in assessing animal's subjective experience have enabled us to take a step back to consider whether such indicators are all one needs to know if one is interested in the welfare of an individual. To investigate this claim, we randomly assigned participants (n = 502) to read one of four vignettes describing a hypothetical chimpanzee and asked them to make judgments about the animal's welfare. Vignettes were designed to systematically manipulate the descriptive mental states the chimpanzee was described as experiencing: feels good (FG) vs. feels bad (FB); as well as non-subjective features of the animal's life: natural living and physical healthy (NH) vs. unnatural life and physically unhealthy (UU); creating a fully-crossed 2 (subjective experience) X 2 (objective life value) experimental design. Multiple regression analysis showed welfare judgments depended on the objective features of the animal's life more than they did on how the animal was feeling: a chimpanzee living a natural life with negative emotions was rated as having better welfare than a chimpanzee living an unnatural life with positive emotions. We also found that the supposedly more purely psychological concept of happiness was also influenced by normative judgments about the animal's life. For chimpanzees with positive emotions, those living a more natural life were rated as happier than those living an unnatural life. Insofar as analyses of animal welfare are assumed to be reflective of folk intuitions, these findings raise questions about a strict hedonistic account of animal welfare. More generally, this research demonstrates the potential utility of using empirical methods to address conceptual problems in animal welfare and ethics.

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