Emotions, Animals, And Evidence
When people discuss or debate animal welfare, two primary areas of focus are animals’ ability to feel pain and the degree to which they experience an emotional life. Understanding how animals experience both positive and negative emotions is crucial on a practical level to provide proper animal care and set animal welfare policies. However, there is often a deep divide between those who do and do not believe animals can feel pain and experience emotions. Skeptics argue that animals simply react to stimuli and only appear to feel negative and positive emotions. Further, while we can draw analogies between ourselves and animals that are like us in some way, many consider this argument by analogy to be weak. Indeed, some have claimed that fish cannot feel pain because they are not anatomically similar to humans. Considering the number of fish killed for food annually, this claim has devastating impacts on fish welfare.
The authors of this paper critically review the various ways that experimenters have tried to make inferences about animals’ “aversive responses,” a phrase some researchers use to describe a response that is associated with negative feelings but not necessarily with pain, per se. The authors adopt an Affective Stance, positing that animals consciously experience felt emotions. They define felt emotions as a conscious sensation in relation to a “positively or negatively valenced affective state, such that the animal will pursue or avoid that sensation.” From here, they review a variety of behavioral studies that assess animals’ responses to stimuli. The researchers roughly organize their review of these responses into three categories: spontaneous responses to negative stimuli, changes in responses to stimuli following drug interventions, and motivation to avoid negative stimuli. They acknowledge that the study results do support definitive evidence that animals experience felt emotions. Still, they hold that inferences drawn from the results strengthens their overall Affective Stance.
The authors conclude that while some individuals and groups are skeptical of animals’ ability to experience felt emotions, the Affective Stance “offers a productive approach forward.” They note that “it would seem to more closely align with the majority position in modern society” as well as support a precautionary approach to decisions involving the use of animals. Though the authors of this article are certainly not opposed to experimentation on animals, advocates could use this type of study to support the elimination of such experiments.