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Welfare by Design: The Natural Selection of Welfare Criteria

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The scientific study of animal welfare has generated a welter of complex, equivocal and often contradictory results. Consequently, there is little agreement about how impairment of welfare should be measured. While some solutions to this have been suggested, these have usually relied on more sophisticated versions of, or more control over, existing measures. However, we argue that the difficulties arise because of questionable assumptions in the definition and measurement of welfare, in particular the measurement of suffering and the assumed importance of individual well-being. We contend that welfare can be interpreted only in terms of what natural selection has designed an organism to do and how circumstances impinge on its functional design. Organisms are designed for self-expenditure and the relative importance of self-preservation and survival, and the concomitant investment of time and resources in different activities, varies with life history strategy. The traditional notions of coping and stress are anthropomorphisms based on homeostatic mechanisms of self-preservation in a long-lived species. Suffering-like states are viewed as generalized subjective states that are geared to avoiding deleterious circumstances with which the organism does not have specific adaptive mechanisms to deal. Attempts to measure suffering-like states directly are likely to remain inconclusive, at least for the foreseeable future, because such states are private and subjective, may take many forms fundamentally different from our own and are likely to depend on the operation of phenotype-limited priorities and decision rules. However, measuring the impact of circumstances on functional design via the organism's decision rules provides a practicable means of giving benefit of the doubt by indicating when suffering, or an analogous subjective state, is likely.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 1996-11-01

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