Proceedings of the Second NAHWOA Workshop

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Defining positive welfare and animal integrity

 H. Verhoog

Louis Bolk Institute, Hoofdstraat 24, NL-3972 LA Driebergen, Tel: +31(0)343517814, Fax: +31(0)343515611, e-mail:


The outline of the paper is as follows. It will first be argued that the concepts of animal welfare and animal integrity are normative concepts. This means that the empirical and the moral domains of these concepts are inextricably linked. Secondly, when it is agreed that we necessarily deal with normative concepts, it will not be surprising that the meaning given to these concepts may be different among different practices, such as traditional and organic agriculture, or may be related to different normative bio-ethical theories. The following bio-ethical theories will be distinguished: anthropocentric, pathocentric, zoocentric, biocentric and ecocentric. The zoocentric approach is most prevalent. Yet there are some limitations to this kind of bio-ethical theory, in particular because it leaves no room for the concept of animal integrity. A biocentric theory may incorporate this concept much better.


Defining animal welfare

There is a tradition within natural science of keeping the empirical and the moral domains strictly apart from each other. The empirical domain is believed to be the domain of science, and the moral domain the domain of ethics. Science is said to be value-free, describing and explaining objectively what we find in nature, without any recourse to moral values. Values, on the other hand, are considered to be subjective. This dualistic view of the relation between the empirical and the moral domain is not the only one, however. The dualistic view neglects the role of human thinking in science. Any natural phenomenon can be described and explained in many ways, and explanations are always incomplete. Choices have to be made and often such choices are influenced by so-called external values. This can be illustrated with a concept such as animal welfare.

Tannenbaum (1991) was one of the first authors who rejected what he called the ‘pure science model’ used by most researchers in the field of animal welfare. According to this model, the scientist can do without value-judgements in animal welfare research. Animal welfare is believed to be a certain state of the animal, which can be described objectively by scientists. Regarding ethical issues, these researchers believe that everyone is entitled to an opinion, whereas making statements about animal welfare is seen as the province of scientists.

Tannenbaum mentions a number of ‘cracks in the model’:

Defining welfare as the absence of suffering (the negative definition) also influences the kind of research done by animal welfare scientists; it excludes research directed toward the promotion of positive mental states.

It is Tannenbaum’s conclusion that ethicists and philosophers should participate in animal welfare studies. Normative choices should be made explicit, and philosophers can help scientists in this process.

Another way of approach to the normativity of animal welfare concepts is the approach taken by Sandoe & Simonsen (1992). They say that scientific knowledge about animal welfare ‘does not by itself provide relevant, rational and reliable answers to the questions concerning animal welfare typically raised by the informed public’. This has to do with the prevailing pure science model. Strictly speaking, natural science cannot say anything about the subjective experiences of animals, because the value-free method used excludes it. Rollin (1990) discusses this issue at some length in his book "The Hidden Cry". But it is exactly these subjective experiences which are at the central core of the lay public’s definition of animal welfare.

Experiences cannot be measured directly, all that can be measured are objectively assessable parameters (pathological, physiological, behavioural). It is especially with the inference from measured parameters to the experiences of the animal that choices are made. The step back from measurement to judgement about the welfare state of the animal involves an interpretation, which is not value-free. Sandoe & Simonsen are of the opinion that the concept of welfare itself lies beyond the general theoretical framework used by scientists. To avoid difficult philosophical discussions about analogies and homologies between animals and humans, welfare-scientists usually adopt a minimalist strategy relating welfare to the avoidance of states of pain or frustration. This leads to a bias against positive welfare.

The way of reasoning of Sandoe & Simonsen is taken a few steps further by Stafleu, Grommers & Vorstenbosch (1996). They distinguish between lexical, explanatory and operational definitions of animal welfare. Typical lexical definitions come from our common sense perspectives of animal welfare, as they function in our world of everyday life. Examples are: welfare is a state in which an animal feels good, or the absence of pain and suffering, or the famous definition by Lorz which says that animal welfare is a state of physical and psychological harmony between the organism and its surroundings. Lexical definitions also define the political and social frame of reference for scientific research, the social relevance of scientific approaches to animal welfare.

Explanatory definitions have the explicit purpose of fitting the concept within some scientific theory as part of a particular scientific discipline. Moral aspects or feelings are usually excluded within such a theory. An example is Broom’s definition of animal welfare as the possibility of coping with its environment (Broom, 1991). Operational definitions define a concept in terms of specific experimental procedures, such as measurement of the corticosteroid level. A diversity of parameters may be developed at this level - parameters that again have to be interpreted to be made relevant for policy decisions about animal welfare. In this movement from lexical to operational definitions, not only the moral aspects but also the subjective feelings are lost in a diversity of objectively measurable parameters. These ‘gaps’ have to be bridged again if the scientific concepts of animal welfare are to be morally and socially relevant. But this bridging cannot be done objectively, also according to Fraser (1995).

Especially in the last two articles mentioned, it is clear that the ‘scientification’ of a concept such as animal welfare also implies a transformation. Scientific concepts show a strong tendency to get divorced from our world of common sense, the world of our immediate experience of nature, animals, etc. Wolpert (1993) even says that this is an intrinsic element of natural science; when such a divorce does not take place it is not science. To be scientific, the method of research must abstract from values, feelings, from our common sense experiences. The green we experience in our daily life is not the green of the physicists, as Wolpert says. All the examples used by Wolpert come from fields in which the reductionist approach has been very successful: physics, chemistry, molecular biology. The knowledge gained in this way is made value-free methodologically, but most of the time it comes back into the life-world by means of technology, technological solutions to problems.

However valid this technology is, such a reductionist approach may not be the best solution for all problems, especially problems related to human, animal and environmental health and well being. Because such fields are very close to our life-world experience it is mostly not possible to dissociate the empirical and the moral aspects. Going the scientific, reductionist way of solving problems involves a choice; natural science as defined by Wolpert may not be the only way of learning about the empirical aspects. Other approaches are, among others, the goetheanistic phenomenological method of research, as practised in the Louis Bolk Institute, for instance. In connection with organic agriculture, it is interesting that Wolpert calls his book ‘The Unnatural Nature of Science’; it gets dissociated from our ‘natural’, that is, our daily experience of nature. The phenomenological method wants to be as close as possible to nature as it is experienced by us. Also interesting in this connection is the concept of ‘experiential science’ as developed by Baars & De Vries (1999). The concept of experiential science is based on the assumption that a farmer already has implicit knowledge based on his or her experience in the past, and when a scientist is asked for advice when there is a problem on the farm, the scientist works together with the farmer, making use of her/his implicit knowledge. A great advantage of this approach is that the step from general knowledge to application in a specific situation is much smaller than with the usual technical solutions based on natural science (note that the ‘universality’ of laws is one of the characteristics of Wolpert’s concept of science).

We said that animal welfare is best seen as a normative concept, which means that moral attitudes and values are always involved. We can talk about this in a more abstract way as we have done until now, but we can also become much more concrete when we ask about whose values we are actually talking. The pet owner, the wildlife observer, the farmer? With such a question we enter the field of empirical ethics. Here we ask what basic moral attitudes and values are held by particular social groups, and how these attitudes and values impinge on certain practices. A ‘practice’ here means an identifiable social group with particular goals and with a particular ‘ethos’, a system of values and norms. The question then becomes whether organic farmers, for instance, can be identified in this way, and whether they have an ethos which is specific for this group, with a different attitude towards and perception of animals and nature than traditional farmers. Do they, as a consequence of these different views, also have different ideas about animal welfare?


Bio-ethical theories

We now step from empirical ethics to normative ethics. We do not just try to find out empirically what kind of values are held by certain groups within society, but we also ask the question whether a certain way of dealing with animals is also ‘good’ from a normative point of view. When I make a distinction between different normative bio-ethical theories, with different views as to the ‘good’ just mentioned, it is important to realize that this is a theoretical exercise. It is not meant to be an empirical description of views actually held by people, although I will sometimes mention authors who may be called exemplary for a particular theory.

A bio-ethical theory is meant to be a framework of thinking in which a certain basic attitude towards animals is involved, in which it is decided which animals or experiences of animals have intrinsic value, and how normative concepts such as animal welfare should be defined. This implies that the meaning of concepts such as intrinsic value, animal welfare or animal integrity depends on the theory in which they function. A theory should have a certain consistency, and it can be used to evaluate views actually held by people.

The following theories will be distinguished:

  1. The anthropocentric theory

  2. The pathocentric theory

  3. The zoocentric theory

  4. The biocentric theory

  5. The ecocentric theory


The anthropocentric theory

    In a strict anthropocentric bio-ethical theory, only human beings have moral status, which means that we have no direct moral responsibilities towards animals. Perhaps we have indirect responsibilities to the owners of animals or, as in traditional anti-cruelty laws, because we believe that people who are cruel to animals may also be cruel to humans. Sometimes this is interpreted as the view that cruelty to animals may hurt other people who see it. Most anti-cruelty laws go one step further, however, in saying that deliberately mistreating an animal, without good reason, is forbidden. Animal experimentation, for instance, is considered to be a good reason by most people. Although most people would not say that scientists who use animals for experiments are ‘cruel’, animal suffering may be involved nevertheless. When it is agreed upon that some (sentient) animals can suffer, and that it is always allowed if there are good reasons for it in terms of human benefits, than I would still consider this to be an anthropocentric approach.

    A view of animal welfare that may be called anthropocentric is the view of people who say that as long as the animal is not ill, as long as it grows and reproduces it has a good welfare.


    The pathocentric theory

    This theory differs from the anthropocentric one in saying that animal suffering is prima facie wrong. When human beings use sentient animals they have the responsibility to minimize animal suffering; some use of animals may be forbidden if suffering is too great and when it can not be prevented. The argument used mostly to defend this view is the analogy argument. Sentient animals are equal to us in their ability to feel pain, and out of compassion we should not let animals suffer. Only ‘higher animals’ are given moral status in such a pathocentric view. Human consciousness is the standard for comparing animals with humans. The closer the animals are to us, the more they should be protected, using 'closer' in the evolutionary sense (non-human primates for instance) or in the emotional sense (pets).

    The concept of animal welfare, which fits into this theory, is the concept defining it as the absence of suffering. Both this concept and the anthropocentric one may be called minimal views.


The zoocentric theory

A good example of a zoocentric thinker is Bernard Rollin (1995). He introduces the concept of ‘telos’ to refer to the species-specific nature of animals: ‘animals like humans have natures, and respect for the basic interests that flow from those natures should be encoded in our social morality’ (159). It is important to realize that it is not the nature itself that is to be respected, but the interests determined by it. Genetically engineering animals, for instance, is not wrong in itself, according to Rollin. Crossing species barriers is not a morally relevant intervention, because species are not morally relevant. Only individual animals that can suffer as a result of genetic engineering are morally relevant; the presence of consciousness is a necessary and sufficient condition for moral relevance. Species cannot suffer. The animal’s telos is not sacred. "I never argued that the telos itself could not be changed", Rollin says (171). To change the telos of chickens through genetic engineering, so that they no longer have a nesting urge, means to remove a source of suffering for animals held in battery cages. They are better off than before. Rollin agrees that it may be better to change the housing conditions, but as long as this is not expected to occur in our present societies, it is better to decrease the suffering, even when this has to be achieved by means of genetic engineering.

Preventing animal suffering is an important element of Rollin’s concept of animal welfare also, but it is not the only one. In addition, it is important to make animals happy in a positive sense (augmenting animal happiness involving satisfaction of the telos): "Well-being involves both control of pain and suffering and allowing the animals to live their lives in a way that suits their biological nature". The zoocentric theory morally obliges us to take into account the interests that are believed to be essential to and constitutive of animal nature. It is thus not a matter of choice being kind to animals, it is our moral duty. He mentions the Swedish law for the protection of animals as an example of a law using such a positive definition of animal welfare.


4. The biocentric theory

What can we expect as the next step in bio-ethical theory formation? It is the step in which not only the interests following from the animal’s telos are considered to be morally relevant but also the telos itself. A typical example of this way of theorizing we find in the work of Paul Taylor (1984, 1985). Taylor introduced the concept of ‘inherent worth’, which he defines as follows:

"the value something has simply in virtue of the fact that it has a good of its own. To say that an entity has inherent worth is to say that its good (welfare, well-being) is deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents and that the realisation of its good is something to be promoted or protected as an end in itself and for the sake of the being whose good it is (1984, 151)"

The domain of morally relevant natural entities is widened to all animals and also plants, and thus to all living things (teleological centres of life). Plants do not have interests, as sentient animals do, but we can say that something that contributes to their good is of interest to them.

In a study about the normative meaning of the concept of ‘naturalness’ in relation to the genetic manipulation of animals, Visser & Verhoog (1999) argued that this is a useful concept when it refers to the characteristic nature of an animal or plant. They distinguished several levels of naturalness, with the criteria used to characterise these levels:


-independent functioning
-independent reproduction

-genetic variability
-genotypic integrity
-species-specific behaviour

-individual health
-individual well-being
-individual integrity


It is now to be decided whether, in the biocentric theory, we want to bring all these criteria for naturality under the heading of the concept of animal welfare, or not. Doing the first would imply that the concept of welfare would no longer be bound to certain animal experiences, as it is in the zoocentric theory. Another solution would be to maintain the concept of animal welfare as it is defined in the zoocentric theory, and introduce new concepts such as animal integrity for those cases of disrespect for the animal’s nature where, as far as we know, it has no consequences for the animal’s well-being. The latter is the case in the Dutch ethical screening system of the genetic modification of animals. The law on which this system is based distinguishes between harm to the health and well being of animals, and (other) ethical aspects, such as violation of the animal’s integrity. In the next section I will pay special attention to the concept of animal integrity. First a few words must be said about the next bio-ethical theory: the ecocentric one.


5. Ecocentric bio-ethical theory

The biocentric theory is directed at individual organisms; species or ecosystems are not considered to have moral status. In an ecocentric theory species and ecosystems have intrinsic value. In one approach human beings are excluded from the ecocentric view. Robert K. Colwell (1989) for instance says that the human position in the ecosystem is ecologically and evolutionarily ‘unnatural’. Human intervention in nature leads to a degradation (devaluation) of the intrinsic value of species. Natural (wild) species have intrinsic value, according to Colwell, because they are essentially irreplaceable. The independence of human will is considered to be characteristic for the definition of intrinsic value. A consequence of this view is that individual organisms belonging to a certain species have no intrinsic value, and domestic animals or plants are excluded because they are not ‘natural’. In connection with the genetic modification of already domesticated species Colwell does see ‘no ethical justification for any bar on genetic alteration of domesticates, by whatever technical means’. See Verhoog (1992) for a criticism of this view.

From the foregoing paragraph we can conclude that in ecocentric approaches the killing of individual animals is not a problem as long as the survival of the species is not endangered. This is different from a biocentric ethic, where it may be seen as the final destruction of the integrity of the organism. From an ecological point of view, it is difficult to maintain this latter position. In an ecological system there is a continuous replacement of organisms, and also from an evolutionary point of view there cannot be evolution without dynamics within populations of organisms. It would be too easy, however, to conclude that what is happening in nature can be used as a moral guidance for human beings (naturalistic fallacy). We are talking about different normative bio-ethical theories, not biological or ecological theories. I think that it would be morally wrong to give up all elements of a biocentric approach in an ecocentric theory. This can easily be seen if we apply it to humans; the fact that human beings also must die eventually does not mean that we have the right to hasten it. Just as elements of the zoocentric theory can be incorporated within a biocentric one, so elements of the biocentric theory should be included in an ecocentric theory. Going from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric theory we are constantly widening the moral domain, not narrowing it.

It is quite clear that in ‘ecological’ agriculture, man is included in the agro-ecosystem; the farmer even is a central element in this. Organic farming is not only directed at a sustainable agriculture, it also takes into account the ‘nature’ of the animals or plants (biocentric element), and the well-being of the animals (zoocentric element). Contrary to what Colwell thinks, there is not an unbridgeable gap between wild species and domestic species, as if ‘naturalness’ or being as close as possible to nature could not be an important normative element in agriculture. Seeing the human being (farmer) as a participant within larger ecosystems, showing respect for the intrinsic value or integrity of other ‘partners’ within the ecosystem, both wild and domestic ones, is one of the core elements of organic farming.


The concept of animal integrity

We have seen that the concept of animal integrity does not fit into zoocentric theories, whereas it is one of the central elements of the biocentric theory. The concept of integrity is also used sometimes in connection with species and ecosystems.

Rutgers & Heeger (1999) give the following definition: ‘the wholeness and completeness of the animal and the species-specific balance of the creature, as well as the animal’s capacity to maintain itself independently in an environment suitable to the species’. It is interesting to see that several of the criteria mentioned in connection with the levels of naturalness come back in this definition. The reason is, I think, that an individual animal always belongs to a species, and it is an animal that is living.

Integrity presupposes the existence of an ‘organism’, a living whole with interconnected parts. It is the interconnectedness, the balanced harmony of the parts of the whole, which is somehow linked to the concept of integrity. Taking away the horns of cows, even if it is done painlessly, is not a morally irrelevant thing in a biocentric theory, because it violates the characteristic nature of cows. It somehow disturbs the organismic ‘wholeness’. The same may be the case when we genetically modify animals or plants by bringing in genes from quite different, unrelated organisms. Vorstenbosch (1993) in this connection uses the concept of ‘genetic integrity’, which he defines as follows:

"In biotechnology the genetic integrity of the individual animal and of the species is central. We can define the genetic integrity of the animal as the genome being left intact. This seems to be a meaningful notion in view of the fact that we clearly point out some factors or actions by which the genome would not be left intact"(110).

In a reaction to the article by Vorstenbosch, Sandoe, Holtug & Simonsen (1996) say that the demand to respect genetic integrity would also tell against selective breeding, and thus against domestication in general. According to them, the idea of genetic integrity suffers from three main problems:

Because of these reasons, the authors think that the concept of integrity is not a useful concept. If there are any ethical limitations to domestication, they think it should be because of animal welfare reasons. Their way of reasoning closely resembles Rollin’s zoocentric view.

Against the first argument used by Sandoe et al, it can be said that it looks very much like a naturalistic fallacy. Human beings also change during their lifetime, both physically and psychically. This does not hinder us in speaking about their physical integrity at any specific moment. Similarly in evolution. Evolution is a slow process, unlike the changes brought about by genetic engineering. More important, however, is the fact that we, as human beings, intentionally interfere in this process, and when the animals involved have a moral status (as in a biocentric theory) we must have good reasons for doing so, irrespective of the speed of evolutionary changes. As to the second argument, Vorstenbosch says in his article that it is unusual to say that we violate the integrity of an animal (or human being) in the case of surgery for the benefit of the animal. In line with the zoocentric approach, Sandoe et al presuppose that the way a result is achieved is morally indifferent. The third argument used by the authors looks like begging the question.

There is one aspect of the concept of integrity that needs further consideration. Vorstenbosch pointed out that human respect and animal integrity are closely linked in arguments. More than with the concept of animal welfare, which can be affected by all kinds of natural circumstances, the concept of integrity directly refers us back to the moral responsibility of human beings for the state of the animals, whether they suffer from it or not. It invites us so to choose a more deontological ethical approach, instead of a consequentialist approach.

In a discussion with a biotechnologist, who also holds a zoocentric view on genetic modification, he agreed with me that creating blind hens, so that they don’t pick each other, would be violating their integrity. But, he added, when the animal does not notice it, or does not suffer from it, then it is not important for the animal, it is just ‘between the ears of the observer’. If I am feeling that making a mouse with a human eye on its back is the wrong thing to do because it violates the integrity of ‘being a mouse’, and the mouse’s well-being is not disturbed by it, than "I" have a problem, not the mouse. As Rollin would say, it is an aesthetic, not a moral problem. Just as with the concept of integrity, aesthetics has much to do with the inter-relatedness of the parts within the whole. To relate this with ethics, we perhaps need a different approach to the consequentialist way of thinking which prevails in the zoocentric approach.

In a consequentialist ethics we look at the consequences of human action - in our case, the consequences for animals. In utilitarianism, we make a kind of cost-benefit analysis, comparing the consequences for the animals with the benefits for humans. With respect to integrity, the question then becomes whether any, and, if so, what kind of ‘harm’ is done to the animals. It must be a kind of harm that cannot be expressed in terms of animal health and well being, and it must allow for a more-or-less assessment. In deontological approaches, we evaluate the action itself, independent of the consequences, by asking whether it is in accordance with certain normative principles. If we accept the principle that we should respect animal integrity, than it is wrong not to do so, it is more of the nature of an either-or criterion. Finally, we can distinguish virtue-ethics, where we look at the motives of the moral agent and the virtues involved.

It is Cooper (1998) who follows the last line. He says that those who violate nature violate themselves. He connects integrity with the human virtue of humility, which he defines as selfless respect for reality, for the animal ‘fitting into its own being’. When humility is absent it can lead to alienation, to a sense of being cut off from nature. Those who lack a respect for the integrity of non-human life have a lack of humility.

Stephen R.L. Clark (1998), in the same book, connects respect for the integrity of animals with human recognition of the genuinely Other as a source of awed delight, and also of morals, just because of what they are, independent of any function they have for us. He gives a Platonic legitimisation of this view:

"To be is to be something. To be something is to embody, though perhaps ineptly, some one form of the many forms which shape, or are shaped in, the mosaic of the divine intellect. Every individual thing that is, is a more or less distorted embodiment or reflection of that intellect. The realities we see are like shadows of all that is God…To disregard that pattern, that presence, so as to remake things in our image, apart from the one image, is indeed to insult the integrity of nature’ (222).

For biodynamic farmers, the species-nature would perhaps refer to such a pattern, the archetypical form or ‘Typus’, shaping and moulding all the individuals who belong to that species. Or the ‘being’ who is supposed to be connected with the individualized agro-ecosystem, in-forming it, defining the ‘integrity’ of the agro-ecosystem, connected with the well-being of both humans and animals and determining the ‘good life’ of the plants.



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