Do Wild Animals Suffer More Than They Enjoy Life?
Wild animal welfare is not a topic restricted to moral philosophers and welfare biologists. Conservationists and animal advocates can benefit greatly from research regarding animal suffering, which has implications for deciding which interventions may maximally improve lives for different species. However, despite its high priority, the field of welfare biology is highly neglected in academic research.
This recent paper challenges the findings of one seminal study conducted in the field, published over two decades ago, which proposed that total suffering outweighs total enjoyment among animals, resulting in net suffering in the animal kingdom. The 2019 revision to this paper corrects the evolutionary economics models used by the author in the original study, which states that the original proposition, known as the Buddhist Premise, only holds if the square of the cost functions for suffering and enjoyment are concave.
For animal advocates, this means there is presently no way of knowing whether animals experience net suffering or net enjoyment. The 2019 paper goes on to propose a few theoretical possibilities, but firmly asserts that current research is limited in what it can say about the state of animal welfare. Given that suffering and enjoyment are subjective, and the way in which each function is measured changes the outcome of the Buddhist Premise, getting an objective conclusion is difficult to say the least.
This suggests there is an urgent need for empirical research to be conducted in the field of suffering dynamics. In particular, it is essential to define suffering and enjoyment in both conceptual and operational terms. Techniques for measuring wellbeing in animals must also be clarified.
The authors of this paper make the important point that, while more research is needed into suffering dynamics, animal advocates and conservationists should not postpone immediate measures to reduce suffering in farmed animals to wait for this research. The authors’ proposed course of action moving forward is to use the known benefits and costs of nature for humans to inform one’s stance on environmental issues, and to dedicate academic research efforts towards welfare biology.
While this study may initially have appeared as a step back for the budding field of suffering dynamics, it actually represents a step forward, because it clarifies the direction in which research should be headed to maximize our understanding of animal welfare.