Many of my books and Psychology Today blogs have dealt with animal emotions and animal sentience. Now let's briefly consider the implications that follow from the conclusion that animals can indeed feel pain and experience deep emotions? If animals are able to suffer, then we must be careful not to cause them intentional and unnecessary pain and suffering, because it is morally wrong to do so. Of course, giving my dog Jethro a painful injection to cure his lung infection or to reduce the pain he occasionally felt from his badly arthritic leg would be permissible. The major point is that our starting must be that it is wrong to cause intentional and unnecessary pain unless there are compelling reasons to override this principle that are for the benefit for the individual animal.
Should humans keep other animals in cages, eradicate them for human development, or move them from one habitat where individuals are thriving to another where they may die (for the good of their species)? Human relationships with animals and nature raise numerous complex issues. Often people wonder why those who they perceive to be concerned with the psychological and physical health of animals can't agree on solutions to existing problems. They believe that advocates of animal welfare and animal rights, those people interested in animal protection, will favor the same solutions. Often this isn't so.
People who believe that it's permissible to cause animals pain, but not unnecessary pain, argue that if we consider the animals' welfare or well-being their quality of life that's all we need to do. These people are called "welfarists" and they practice "welfarism." Welfarists believe that while humans should not wantonly exploit animals, as long as we make animals' lives comfortable, physically and psychologically, we're respecting their welfare. If animals experience comfort and some of life's pleasures, appear happy, and are free from prolonged or intense pain, fear, hunger and other unpleasant states, they're doing fine. If individuals show normal growth and reproduction, and are free from disease, injury, malnutrition and other types of suffering, they're doing well and we're fulfilling our obligations to them.
This welfarist position also assumes that it is all right to use animals to meet human ends as long as certain safeguards are used. They believe that the use of animals in experiments and the slaughtering of animals as food for humans are all right as long as these activities are conducted in a humane way. They also believe keeping animals in zoos and aquariums where there are high death rates is permissible. Welfarists do not want animals to suffer from any unnecessary pain, but they sometimes disagree among themselves about what pain is "necessary" and what humane care really amounts to. But welfarists agree that the pain and death animals suffer is sometimes justified because of the benefits that humans derive. For them, the ends justify the means - the use of animals even if they suffer because the use is considered to be necessary for human benefits.
Basically, welfarists are utilitarians who believe that dogs, cats, prairie dogs, or any other animals can be exploited as long as the pain and suffering that the animals experience the costs of using the animals to the animals are less than the benefits to humans that are gained by using the animals. Animal pain and death animals are justified because of the benefits that humans derive. The ends (human benefits) justify the means (the use of animals) even if they suffer, because their use is considered to be necessary for human gains. Those who argue that moving animals around for human benefits and using dogs and other animals to teach medical students often employ the utilitarian argument, as do those who feel comfortable eating formerly "free-ranging chickens" but not chickens who've been brutally debeaked and imprisoned in inhumane battery cages.
Now what about those who advocate animal rights? Tom Regan, professor emeritus of philosophy at North Carolina State University, is often considered the originator of the modern animal rights movement. His book The Case for Animal Rights (1983) attracted much attention to this area. Advocates who believe that animals have rights stress that animals' lives are valuable in and of themselves, not valuable just because of what they can do for humans or because they look or behave like us. Animals are not property or "things," but rather living organisms, subjects of a life, who are worthy of our compassion, respect, friendship, and support. Rightists expand the borders of species to whom we grant certain rights. Thus, animals are not "lesser" or "less valuable" than humans. They are not property that may be abused or dominated at will. Any amount of animal pain and death is unnecessary and unacceptable.
Rightists also are concerned with animals' quality of life. However, they argue it's wrong to abuse or exploit animals, to cause animals any pain and suffering, and that animals shouldn't be eaten, held captive in zoos, or used in most (or any) educational or research settings. They believe animals have certain moral and legal rights including the right to life and the right not to be harmed. According to Gary Francione, a professor of law at Rutgers University, to say an animal has a "right" to have an interest protected means the animal is entitled to have that interest protected even if it would benefit us to do otherwise. Rightists believe humans have an obligation to honor that claim for animals just as they do for non-consenting humans who can't protect their own interests. So, if a dog has a right to be fed you have an obligation to make sure she's fed. If a dog has a right to be fed, you're obligated not to do anything to interfere with feeding her. Of course, you might prevent her from feeding on garbage or something that might harm her, but this isn't what I'm referring to.
Rightists also stress that animals' lives are inherently valuable; their lives aren't valuable because of their utility to humans. Animals aren't "less valuable" than humans. Also, animals are neither property nor "things," but rather living organisms, subjects of a dignified life, who are worthy of our support, friendship, compassion and respect. Any amount of pain and death is unnecessary and unacceptable.
Now, what about many conservation biologists and environmentalists? Typically, they're welfarists who are willing to trade-off individuals' lives for the perceived good of higher levels of organization such as ecosystems, populations or species. Witness the reintroduction of Canadian lynx into Colorado or wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Some conservationists and environmentalists, in contrast to rightists, argued that the death of some individuals (even the agonizingly painful starvation of lynx who were placed in a habitat where it was known that there wasn't enough food) was permissible for the perceived good of the species. Some even say that we should concentrate on the animals who are known to be alive, rather than the dead or the missing. People who claim it's all right to kill "pests" such as brown rats and other animals because there are numerous other members of their species are taking a utilitarian stance. People who allow captive predatory animals to kill and eat other animals (prey who can't get away) to train them so they can be released into the wild also are adopting the utilitarian position.
Labeling an individual a "welfarist" or "rightist" connotes important messages about their views on animal exploitation. One must be careful how these words are tossed around. Welfarists and rightists have radically different perceptions, perspectives and agendas, and solve problems differently. They preach very different codes of conduct. Welfarism and rights are extremely difficult to reconcile. Indeed, many experts think it's an impossible marriage. Nonetheless, it's essential to understand their different perspectives in our efforts to protect animals who can't speak for themselves and whose voices fall on deaf ears. Animals truly care if they're confronting a welfarist or a rightist for their very lives are in the hands of the people who can do anything they want to them.