How matters of mind inform matters of welfare: Rodents are animals 

The question I ask in the title centers on the idea that supposedly smarter nonhuman animals (animals) suffer more than animals who are not as intelligent. Indeed, many people who write about other animals make this assumption, as do those who develop and enforce policies on what sorts of treatment are permissible and those that are not. In the eyes of the United States Federal Animal Welfare Act, animals such as mice and other rodents, birds, fish, and invertebrates receive little if any protection from extreme abuse and they're not even considered to be animals. Indeed, about 99 percent of the animals used in research are not protected by federal legislation and are routinely subjected to horrific abuse. Here is a quote from the federal register: “We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act’s definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research” (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004). Common sense tells us that the animals who are excluded from the definition of animal are indeed animals. This assumption underlies what follows. 

In 1994 I published an essay titled "Cognitive ethology and the treatment of non-human animals: How matters of mind inform matters of welfare". When I reread it this past week as I was writing a recent essay called "The Birds and the Bees and Their Brains: Size Doesn't Matter" I came to realize that some of the arguments I offered and rejected back then about a possible relationship between intelligence and suffering are still being considered even in light of a plethora of new data on the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals. Here I want to revisit briefly some of these claims given what we now know about animal cognition, emotions, consciousness, and sentience based on more recent research on their fascinating minds and their capacity to suffer and to feel pain. The abstract for my essay reads as follows:

Anthropocentric claims about the ways in which non-human animals (hereafter animals) interact in their social and non-social worlds are often used to influence decisions on how animals can or should be used by humans in various sorts of activities. Thus, the treatment of individuals is often tightly linked to how they are perceived with respect to their ability to perform behaviour patterns that suggest that they can think - have beliefs, desires, or make plans and have expectations about the future. Here, I review some basic issues in the comparative study of animal minds and discuss how matters of mind are related to matters of welfare and well-being. Much comparative research still needs to be done before any stipulative claims can be made about how an individual's cognitive abilities can be used to influence decisions about how she or he should be treated. More individuals from diverse species whose lives, sensory worlds, motor abilities and nervous systems are different from those of animals with whom we identify most readily or with whom we are the most familiar, need to be studied. As others, I stress the importance of subjectivity and common sense along with the use of empirical data in making decisions about animal welfare, and that subjective assessments should be viewed in the same critical light as are supposedly objective scientific facts. I also argue that whatever connections there are between an individual's cognitive abilities and what sorts of treatment are permissible can be overridden by that individual's ability to feel pain and to suffer. When we are uncertain, even only slightly, about their ability to experience pain or to suffer, individual animals should be given the benefit of the doubt. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the phylogenetic distribution of pain and suffering.

Are dogs more intelligent than mice and do they suffer more?

To begin, in the past twenty years since my essay was completed there has been an explosion, if you will, in studies and data concerning the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of animals (see and). Numerous surprises have been discovered for individuals of species who were assumed to be not all that smart or sentient. In a nutshell, research has opened up the door to reconsider not only the nature of the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of animals but also how much they suffer when they are mistreated. It's also become clear that the word "intelligence" needs to be considered in light of what an individual needs to do to be a card-carrying member of his or her species and that comparisons between species don't really tell us much. So, asking if a dog is smarter than a cat or a cat is smarter than a mouse doesn't result in answers that are very meaningful. Likewise, asking if dogs suffer more than mice ignores who these animals are and what they have to do to survive and thrive in their own worlds, not in ours or those of other animals.

Furthermore, with respect to the original abstract and what I wrote in the essay itself, a great deal of subsequent comparative research has shown that what was then taken to be well-founded common sense based on solid evolutionary theory (e. g. Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity) about what animals know and feel has been borne out by numerous studies and many surprises have also been forthcoming. It's bad biology to rob animals of the traits they clearly possess. For example, we share with other mammals and vertebrates the same areas of the brain that are important for consciousness and processing emotions. We need to abandon the anthropocentric view that only big-brained animals such as ourselves, nonhuman great apes, elephants, and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have sufficient mental capacities for complex forms of consciousness and for enduring deep suffering.

In addition, numerous stories about the lives of animals have opened up areas of detailed research. Indeed, as my colleague Dale Jamieson and I like to say, "the plural of anecdote is data" and anecdotes and citizen science are very useful for stimulating systematic research (see also, for example, John Marzluff and Tony Angell's Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans and their essays for Psychology Today). 

With respect to some other areas I covered back then, recently a group of esteemed scientists put forth the Cambridge Declaration on Animal Consciousness in which they concluded, "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates." I noted they should also have included fish, for whom the evidence supporting sentience and consciousness is also compelling (see also).  And, we need to keep the door open to the possibility that other vertebrates and invertebrates also feel pain (see also). 

"There are no 'unintelligent' animals; only careless observations and poorly designed experiments" (J. Szentagothai 1987, p 323)

Because access to my earlier essay is restricted let me include here some more of what I wrote (references are below) as it's extremely relevant to the argument that we need to take the pain and suffering of "less intelligent" animals very seriously and that speciesist arguments about "higher" and "lower" animals need to be shelved (see also). 

The "not so cognitive" individual

When individual cognitive capacities are used for drawing lines along some arbitrary scale concerning what can and cannot be done to them, granting that an individual is conscious or capable of behaving intentionally and having thoughts about the future (for example) can greatly influence the treatment to which he is subjected. Using the word 'stupid' to refer to domesticated animals (Callicott 1980, p 30) when compared to their wild relatives can certainly influence how one treats an individual. Perhaps, as Szentagothai (1987, p 323) notes: 'There are no 'unintelligent' animals; only careless observations and poorly designed experiments.'

What might be some of the implications of discovering that some animals are 'not all that cognitive' -that they have relatively impoverished cognitive abilities and lives or that they have fewer memories and fewer beliefs about the future? First, we would have to show that these so-called cognitive 'deficiencies' are morally relevant. Is having a sense of time and being able to foresee one's own death a morally relevant difference between humans and animals (Duncan 1993a, p 7)? Second, it could be argued that although some individuals' cognitive lives are not as rich as those of other 'more cognitive' animals, the limited number of memories and expectations that the former individuals have are each more important to them. Not allowing certain expectations to be realized is a serious intrusion on their lives, perhaps more serious than not allowing some expectations in animals with richer cognitive lives to be realized. As Gruen (1992) has pointed out with respect to death, a person who does not get home to write the play they have been thinking of and the dog who does not get to go for one more run by the river are both having desires thwarted to the same degree, totally.

Furthermore, as some have argued, if the memories of some animals are not well developed so that they live in the present and do not have the ability to know about the passage of time into the future, then their pains have no foreseeable end. Thus, I might know that my canid companion Jethro's pain might end in five seconds, but he cannot know this on this account (see also Duncan & Petherick 1991, p 5021).

Related to this line of reasoning is the observation that many animals, even those for whom we would be hard-pressed to suggest a rich cognitive life (eg lobsters), take what are called self-regarding steps (Hannay 1990, p 154ff); they seem to try to remove themselves from situations that they find aversive, situations they seem not to prefer that resemble situations that normal human beings and other animals do not prefer either. Even if they do not imagine that there is something that is more pleasurable, and even if they are (some might say merely) removing themselves from a situation that is aversive, they seem to be showing some indication of displeasure and possibly pain. Not being able to imagine a brighter or cooler future does not mean that they are not in pain when they are dropped into hot water. They are acting as if they do not like the situation in which they find themselves and they may be trying to remove themselves from it without having a subjective experience of pain or a thought about the future. Mason (1994, pp 57-58) points out that there seems to be no good reason why self-awareness needs to be as a prerequisite for suffering, why 'the (self­ aware) feeling 'I am suffering' [should] be considered worse than the (not self-aware) feeling 'Something truly terrible is happening".

Nonetheless, it is possible that there is a difference between a preference for cool water rather than hot water and having a preference to live. DeGrazia (1991) claims that if a struggle for survival is not accompanied by a particular mental state, then it fails to reveal a preference to live. DeGrazia's claim forces the following issue: we must be sure that there is not a particular mental state - perhaps a mental state with which we are unfamiliar - that is associated with a preference shown by an animal who we think is 'not all that cognitive', and we must remember that this remains largely an empirical question. It is possible that some animals experience pain and suffer in ways that we cannot yet imagine, and it would be wrong now to conclude that their responses to various stimuli do not count in welfare decisions -that they are similar to the various tropisms shown by plants (see Lewis 1980 for a discussion of pain that concerns itself with the possibility that others who act nothing like we do when we feel pain nevertheless really do feel pain). As Bateson (1991) points out, it was rare in the past to find people taking seriously the possibility of insect pain, but now there is a lot of interest in this area (see also Orlans 1993). Despite their shortcomings (Duncan 1992, 1993a; see also Kaufman 1994), it is possible that preference tests that are developed for a broad spectrum of animals would help to shed some light on the phylogenetic distribution of sentience. This is a challenge for the future because when animals do not do what we expect them to do or when they do nothing, it is possible that they are not motivated by the situation that we create - there are as yet unknown factors that influence their behaviour (Rozin 1976; Cheney & Seyfarth 1993).

Now, the minimalist might want to argue that having a more impoverished life might be a morally relevant difference, but she can't have it both ways. If there are fewer memories or mental states, each of which matters more, then we have to be sure that we do not forget this in our moral deliberations. Removing a calf who is to become veal from his mother might be agony for the mother, for her calf is all she has at the moment. She cannot, it seems, anticipate having another calf in the future, but even if she could have this thought, this would not in any way justify removing her present calf. Furthermore, if my companion Jethro's pains are interminable for him, then causing him pain would be more serious than causing pain for someone to whom you could tell that it would only last for five seconds. But, intentionally causing him pain might still be wrong even if he could know that it would only last for five seconds.

For those who look to studies of humans in order to find some relevance for these sorts of arguments, there might be some strong connections. Consider humans who Dresser (1993) calls 'missing persons'; those who are seriously demented and mentally disabled. These people have impoverished mental lives, but it is possible that each of their few memories is more important to them than many of the memories of unimpaired humans.

A brief summary; Does less mean more?

Let me pull out some points that still need a good deal of informed discussion given current knowledge. These include:

-- What do the words "intelligent" or "smart" really mean?

-- What might be some of the implications of discovering that some animals are "not all that cognitive" - that they have relatively impoverished cognitive abilities and lives or that they have fewer memories and fewer beliefs about the future?

-- Although some individuals' cognitive lives are not or do not seem to be as rich as those of other "more cognitive" animals, are the limited number of memories and expectations that the former individuals have each more important to them? Do supposedly fewer memories or mental states matter more?

-- If the memories of some animals are not so well developed so that they live in the present and do not have the ability to know about the passage of time into the future, do their pains have no foreseeable end and do they suffer more? 

I concluded my previous essay "The Birds and the Bees and Their Brains: Size Doesn't Matter" as follows: "Big brains and high EQ's may be useful for those animals who need them to be card-carrying members of their species, but small-brained animals do very well as long as they can do what they need to do to survive and thrive in their own worlds. The notion that small-brained animals are 'less intelligent' than big-brained animals and 'suffer less' also needs to be revisited as it's surely a myth." The pains of supposedly "smarter" animals are not morally more significant than the pains of "dumber beings". Solid science supports these ideas and I stand by this conclusion.


Bateson P P G 1991 Assessment of pain in animals. Animal Behaviour 42: 827-839

Callicott J B 1980 Animal liberation: a triangular affair. In Callicott J. In Defense of The Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy pp 15-38. Reprinted 1989, SUNY Press: Albany, New York

Cheney D L and Seyfarth R M 1993 Dogs that don't bark in the night: how to investigate the lack of a domain of expertise? Philosophy of Science Association 2: 92-109

DeGrazia D 1991 The moral status of animals and their use in research: a philosophical review. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal March: 48-70

Dresser R 1993 Culpability and other minds. Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journa l2: 41-88

Duncan I J H 1992 Measuring preferences and the strength of preferences. Poultry Science 71: 658-663

Duncan I J H 1993a The science of animal well-being. Animal Welfare Information Center Newsletter 4: 1-7

Duncan 1J H and Petherick J C 1991 The implications of cognitive processes for animal welfare. Journal of Animal Science 69: 5017-5022

Gruen L 1992 Animals. In Singer P (ed) A Companion to Ethics pp 343-353. Basil Blackwell: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Hannay A 1990 Human Consciousness. Routledge: New York

Kaufman F 1994 Machines, sentience, and the scope of morality. Environmental Ethics 16: 57-70

Lewis D 1980 Mad pain and martian pain. In Block N (ed) Readings in Philosophy of Psychology. Volume 1 pp 216-222. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mason G J 1994 Review of Wemelsfelder 1993. Animal Welfare 3: 57-60

Orlans F B 1993 In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation. Oxford University Press: New York

Rozin P 1976 The evolution of intelligence and access to the cognitive unconscious. In Sprague J N and Epstein A N (eds) Progress in Psychobiology and Physiological Psychology, Volume 6 pp 245-280. Academic Press: New York

Szentagothai J 1987 The 'mind-brain' relation: a pseudoproblem? In Blakemore C and Greenfield S (eds) Mindwaves: Thoughts on Intelligence, Identity, and Consciousness pp 323-336. Basil Blackwell: New York

Note: I'm pleased to share a copy of my original essay with all of the references for educational purposes.

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