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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst Moral ResponsibilityAgency and AnswerabilityAgency and ResponsibilityAgency, 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Animal suffering is no longer the exclusive focal point for debates concerning nonhuman animals. Animal welfare discussions more broadly include issues such as consciousness, cognition, and emotion. Philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists labor to discover the intersections of human and nonhuman physiology, behavior, and experience. In Why Animals Matter, animal behaviorist Marian Stamp Dawkins carefully places arguments concerning nonhuman animal welfare in the context of wider human concerns such as sustainable food production, human health and disease, and environmental protection. Farmers, consumers, all humans really, have a stake in the outcome of animal welfare arguments. To get them right, says Dawkins, these arguments should be evidence-based and linked to human self-interest. The arguments most likely to inspire action for animal welfare, she says, are those that people recognize as supporting their own interests. Arguments dependent on anthropomorphic claims about the experiences of animals, she says, will be unconvincing to those who assign a high priority to human interests or those who deny animal consciousness. So to begin Dawkins spends quite some time discussing the significance of arguments concerning consciousness in nonhuman animals.
Consciousness is relevant to discussions of animal welfare because if the experiences of animals are like the experiences of humans we have good reason for requiring a justification to treat them differently. Of course, the problem is that we are hardly able to say what we mean by consciousness in humans. Dawkins refers to the mystery of consciousness, of subjective experiences, as the 'hard problem.' But she is not afraid to address the hard questions such as why or when consciousness is necessary or how complex an organism must be to have conscious awareness. The questions are important because Dawkins goal is to keep the study of animal welfare scientific. This means testable hypotheses and evidence-based claims. Confusion over what consciousness actually is, makes it difficult to study scientifically. But this doesn't show that animals lack consciousness, we simply can't say whether animals have conscious experiences or not. What we do know, from studies of human brain activity, is that there is no 'nugget' of tissue that is active when a person is conscious and inactive when she is not. There simply is no 'seat' of consciousness in humans. This may not be troubling if you're a dualist who believes that consciousness cannot be explained solely in terms of the brain. Dualists have their own worries explaining the interaction between mind and brain kinds of 'stuff.' But for physicalists like Dawkins the adaptive significance of conscious awareness simply reduces to the advantage of neural processing mechanisms that give rise to it. Consider the question of pain, for example. What does the conscious experience of pain add to an organism's evolutionary success that an unconscious neural firing of some sort couldn't offer?
Luckily, the 'hard problem' does not need to be solved in order to support the case for animal welfare. The important point to take away from the discussion of consciousness is the appeal to keep claims scientific. We don't know enough about animal consciousness to know what would count as evidence in its favor. Especially among those least inclined toward nonhuman animals, arguments that depend on anthropomorphic claims for animal consciousness will be dismissed as unscientific and animal welfare will suffer the consequences. The most powerful argument for animal welfare, then, is not tied to animal consciousness, according to Dawkins, but rather to the claim that the health of animals directly affects the health of humans.
Animal health affects human health in a variety of ways. Feeding an increasing human population and reducing pollution and greenhouse gasses are challenges that will continue to demand our attention. Dawkins also notes that according to the World Health Organization 75% of the new diseases affecting humans have come from animals or animal products. If human health is connected to animal welfare, then good animal welfare is to our benefit. But what counts as 'good animal welfare?' Physical health is surely part of the story, but for Dawkins what animals 'want' is equally important. The 'wants' she is referring to are the evolutionary urges that stimulate animals to behave in certain ways. For example, warblers, safe in an aviary with plenty of accessible food, still 'want' to migrate. The shortened days stimulate their desire to fly away, even though all their physical needs are being met. Good welfare might not require opening the doors to the aviary, but recognizing the want and trying to reduce frustration is clearly part of the complex picture. This two-pillared approach meets Dawkins' standard for scientific respectability since both physical health and the demonstrable conditions for satisfaction of an animal's wants can be evidence-based. Scientific evaluation of animal welfare can be tied to clear outcomes based on real practices on real farms. Best of all, it shows that you can study animal welfare without first solving the hard problem of animal consciousness. What needs further consideration is how satisfying the 'wants' in this approach, is in the interest of humans.
Why Animals Matter is a scholarly and accessible account of the complicated link between human interests and animal welfare. Yet, Dawkins says the book is not an attempt to persuade you to treat animals differently. This seemed disingenuous at first. Why bother to write a book about animal welfare, if not to try to change behavior? Especially one titled, Why Animals Matter. But perhaps this is because the immediate goal is not really to change your treatment of animals, but instead to clarify current views about what constitutes good welfare for animals, challenge what is required for arguments about animal welfare to succeed, and illustrate how and where human and animal interests intersect. Of course, the reason for doing all this, and for insisting on scientific respectability, is ultimately to effect changes in policy and practice just where evidence deems it suitable.
© 2014 Jonelle DePetro
Jonelle DePetro, PhD, Eastern Illinois University
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