As I look forward to our spring meeting in Bristol and the Peter Singer Lecture to follow, both with their reflective flavour, it is clear to see that animal welfare and associated ethical considerations have advanced almost beyond recognition over the past 50 years or so, yet equally we have not lost sight of former philosophical positions. As an example of how current scientific techniques force us to challenge our beliefs and evaluate scenarios which would not have been credible even 20 years ago, New Scientist in September last year carried an article exploring some of the issues surrounding the possibility of reducing animal suffering by manipulating animals in order to alter their sensations of pain. While advances in neuroscience and genetics make this a real possibility, there are fundamental ethical issues involved which go beyond the normal cut and thrust of the usual debate. By manipulating genes which regulate affective pain, the article suggests, the potentially beneficial aspects of pain awareness may be preserved, so allowing animals the opportunity to avoid harmful situations in their lives. How then would we feel about techniques such as castration and tail-docking if these were not accompanied by painful sensations? There could also be interesting ethical debate focussed on the balance between the possible improvement of animal welfare against the desire to avoid genetic manipulation. What stance might the ‘ethical carnivore’ take, would the animals’ telos be affected and, if so, would it matter?
I thought I would include some comments about the widely-held view that welfare is a state of relevance to an individual rather than to a collective. From a scientific perspective, we generally work on the basis of the former but are we really right to reject so readily an alternative position? Stockpersons often refer to flock or herd welfare and gamekeepers to the welfare of a herd of deer, so perhaps more effort should be made to explore exactly what process they are going through and what information they are assimilating to form their assessment. And if that is their view and they work to achieve high collective’ welfare, how much does this differ in outcome to the situation where care is delivered at an individual level? We probably do not yet have the ability to understand, or the processes to handle adequately, inter-individual differences; perhaps we should place more emphasis here. We may also be thwarted in this by other individual effects, perhaps akin to the situation in humans where we know differential pain thresholds exist. By analogy, a poor welfare state for one animal may not be so significant for another.
I am always keen to promote the interests of AWSELVA if I can see a helpful role for the association to play. Swedish MEP Marit Paulsen has released a report which calls for the creation of a new European centre for animal welfare (with another part of the report calling for existing animal welfare legislation to be properly implemented). If this comes about it will be interesting to see how views on welfare and ethical matters will be benchmarked and whether the proposed (and soon to be) European ‘AWSELVA’ will be recognised as able to play an important part.
I want to end my final journal piece as Chair by thanking my fellow committee members for their significant help and support over the past two years. We are only a small organisation but I believe we do make an important contribution, particularly through thought-provoking and authoritative articles in the journal and the high quality of the presentations and debate we have enjoyed at our various meetings. I trust that Ed Varley will enjoy your continued enthusiastic support as he steps into the Chair’s position and I wish him well.