AWSELVA, by its very title, recognises that a professional concern for animal welfare must incorporate principles of both science and ethics, and these principles should govern present and future laws. We have become accustomed to hearing politicians within the European Community pronounce that any new animal welfare legislation must be based ‘on sound scientific principles’. This sounds all right, at first, since it implies that decisions will be taken on the basis of reasoned evidence, rather than in response to emotional pressure. On closer inspection however, it can be seen to be, at best, naïve,
and at worst, hypocritical, since it implies that science and science alone can determine value judgements as to the acceptability of specific husbandry practices; e.g. hens in cages, sows in stalls.
The fallacy of this argument was highlighted by David Fraser at the recent International Workshop on the Assessment of Animal Welfare at Farm and Group Level (see p 17 of this issue). He pointed out that committees of professionally competent individuals in Europe and Australia were asked to review the scientific evidence relating to the welfare of sows in pregnancy stalls. After thorough review of the same evidence the Australians and Europeans concluded, respectively, that sow stalls were, and were not acceptable in respect of animal welfare. This failure to generate a consistent answer from ‘sound scientific principles’ reveals (at least) three fundamental weaknesses in the approach, which are not mutually exclusive.
- Science has not yet provided the answers we need.
- Judgements as to the acceptability or otherwise of a particular practice are value judgements which can be informed by science, but should be determined by a completely different set of standards, namely the principles of ethics.
- Politicians (and others) will select, and value, the evidence to give them the answer they wanted to achieve in the first place.
The Virtue of the Scientific Method
I believe that science must be central to moral decisions concerning animal welfare because I am a passionate believer in the moral virtue of the scientific method. I qualify this by emphasising the distinction between the scientific method, science and scientists. The moral virtue of the scientific method, properly applied, is that it seeks to create a hypothesis from all the available evidence, not just that which fits, then is prepared to challenge that hypothesis by experiments designed not to prop it up but to test it to destruction. This is a highly honourable approach to the truth. Science itself is amoral. It is simply the pursuit of new knowledge and understanding. In knowledge lies power.
However that power may be used in ways that are good, bad, or entirely unexpected. As a quirky illustration of my point, I would like to suggest that one of the greatest contributions of new science to animal welfare has been the invention of Viagra. According to Dr. Frank von Hippel (University of Alaska), in the first two years after Viagra came on the international market, trade in certain ‘traditional medicines’, namely velvet from reindeer antlers and penises from Canadian seals dropped by 72% and 50% respectively.
I make no special claims for the moral virtue of scientists. Those of us who practice science are no more or less venial, flawed and generally inadequate than anyone else. However science transcends us. The careful, disinterested approach to the pursuit of discovery and understanding is essential to a good society, not least because we humans, in common with our fellow mortals, are sentient animals: that is, we are primarily motivated by how we feel. We experience primitive feelings of hunger, thirst, lust, sloth etc. and these are biologically necessary for our own survival and reproduction. Good citizens in a good society also experience higher feelings of right and wrong. We need a warm heart to highlight moral problems, e.g. in relation to issues such as animal welfare and the environment. However we also need a cool head, especially one disciplined by scientific reason, based on evidence and experiment, to achieve some effective resolution of complex problems highlighted by moral feelings. Thus, properly applied, the scientific method can improve the quality of our value judgements.
Science has not yet provided the answers?
The primary practical aim of animal welfare science has been to promote husbandry systems that achieve a fair compromise between the proper needs of mankind for good, safe, affordable food, clothing and medicines, and our responsibility to provide the animals we use for these purposes with a reasonable quality of life and a humane end. I would identify three scientific approaches that have already significantly contributed to animal welfare.
- Development of improved husbandry systems
- Improved methods for assessing the physical and psychological elements of good and bad welfare
- Motivation analysis designed to assess animal needs and the relative strength of these needs
All these approaches have been used as a basis for establishing new minimum standards of acceptability for legislative purposes and for the development of welfare-based Quality Assurance (QA) Schemes that are now an integral part of farm audit within the U.K. and Europe. However, at present, most QA protocols are almost entirely directed to recording the elements of provision that define good husbandry. One of the first priorities for Animal Welfare Scientists is to develop robust, on farm, animal-based procedures for the assessment of welfare outcomes, since ultimately, this is what matters.
All this is to the good. However, I suggest that one of the major obstacles to progress in improving welfare standards for farm animals is an unholy alliance between scientists and administrators, both of whom seek to advance their own careers by endlessly postponing decisions for direct action to improve welfare, pending ‘considerably further research in this area’.
Valuing the Five Freedoms
While science may not yet provide all the answers we need, it does give us plenty to work on in formulating judgements as to the acceptability or otherwise of particular husbandry practices. This implies that our inability to reach consistent conclusions (or indeed any conclusion at all) lies in the way that we value the scientific evidence or the way in which we select the scientific evidence. The main premise underpinning the ‘Five Freedoms, as currently presented by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, is that they offer a comprehensive approach to assessing both the physical and psychological elements of welfare state (i.e. they deter one from selecting the evidence). The original Five Freedoms of the Brambell Committee were to permit an animal to ‘stand up, lie down, turn round, groom and stretch its limbs’. These were very real concerns for farm animals in the most intensive conditions but they were highly selective, being based entirely upon certain aspects of maintenance behaviour. Three of the new, comprehensive Five Freedoms relate to physical welfare (nutrition, comfort, health), one to psychological
state (freedom from fear and stress) and one to the need to perform ‘natural’ behaviour. When the Australians and Europeans reviewed the evidence concerning the welfare of sows in pregnancy stalls, they reached different conclusions, not because they were deliberately neglecting elements of the science, but because the Australians placed more value on the physical elements of welfare and the Europeans placed more evidence on the psychological elements.
We cannot therefore conclude on scientific grounds that either group was wrong, simply because the key question that they were asked to address was not a scientific question. Those involved in the drafting of animal welfare legislation should acknowledge, first, that conclusions cannot be based solely on the scientific evidence. It is essential to make a clear distinction between review of evidence and value judgements based on that review. It is equally important to acknowledge that such judgements are not scientific. Of course, the formulation of good law based on sound value judgements requires a profound understanding of ethics, which has been called the science of morals. But that, as they say, is another story.