Redefining ‘a good life’ for domestic animals: the role of pleasure in positive welfare

This essay explores the concept of both joyless and joyful lives for animals, and examines how recent advances in our understanding of the nature and scope of animal pleasure have impacted welfare. It questions whether the shift from an emphasis on neutral welfare states to positive ones within captivity is enough to ensure genuinely high welfare. Bekoff’s new manifesto for ‘animal well-being’ (Bekoff and Pierce, 2017), which posits that an animal can never experience a truly joyful life within current structures of animal use, is examined as a possible next step in welfare policy. A critical eye is cast on its viability in the eyes of stakeholders and countered with some final thoughts on the economic benefits of animal well-being for both humans and animals.

The concept of a ‘joyless’ life

The idea that it is possible for an animal to have a life of negative utility (Studebaker 2017) or ‘a life not worth living’ (FAWC ,2009) is conceivably extreme; it suggests the animal’s life is harmful to his/her interests and has no significant potential of improving. Yet the current outcomes for the 15 billion broiler chickens farmed worldwide[1] are a stark example of ‘lives not worth living’: genetically engineered to grow unnaturally fast and plump, these chickens are most often lame, suffering respiratory problems and crushed together in artificially-lit warehouses. Bollard infers that these birds likely live “net-negative lives, as opposed to in 1950 where it is conceivable that they had net-positive lives” (Bollard, 2017). The idea that many, if not most, animals in modern factory farms live lives devoid of pleasure seems valid based on factors like pain (i.e., dehorning and castration without anaesthetic), lack of mental and physical stimulation in restricted housing, the separation of mothers and calves, and many other well-documented welfare problems in intensive farming systems.

Nonetheless, we must take care not to apply human values to animal lives. Extinctionist philosophy is an example of this, suggesting that, even in the wild, animals lead such stressful and ‘joyless’ lives that these are not worth living (Studebaker, 2017). Extinctionist reasoning concludes that what does not work for a human would not work for an animal so, whether ‘captive’ pet or wild creature, they cannot experience ‘a good life’. Yet numerous studies by ethologists present evidence to the contrary, demonstrating animal capacity for pleasure (Balcombe, 2009) (Bekoff, 2008).

The concept of animal pleasure

Cabanac describes the perception of pleasure as “a common currency” shared by humans and animals (1992): we are all capable of doing something for the sheer joy of the action as opposed to any other motivation. In his book Dead Zone Philip Lymbery describes an adult peregrine at play:

“It seemed the aerodynamics were pure joie de vivre. He had no prey in sight, no hapless pigeon or puffin. He wasn’t being chased. He dived in the wind apparently for the sheer joy of it” (Lymbery, 2017, p.141).

Balcombe coined a name for appreciation of animal pleasure and its ethological study: ‘hedonic ethology.’ He cites evidence for animal hedonism that includes play behaviour, favouring tastier food, sexual activity with no aim to procreate, grooming and other tactile interactions, basking in the sun, seeking shade… the list is arguably as boundless as it would be for humans. Burgdorf found that rats would run over to their researcher four times as quickly to receive tickles to their bellies (which mimic rats’ rough-and-tumble play behaviour) than would rats expecting dorsal strokes (2001). Panksepp even demonstrated that chimps, dogs and rats exhibit laughter-like sounds when they are “horsing around and having fun” (2005). As early as 1871, Darwin stated that “Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc., when playing together, like our own children” (2004).

In fact, some animals might even be able to experience realms of pleasure outside of human knowledge or capacity i.e., the echolocation abilities of bats and cetaceans, and electric communication in fish (Balcombe, 2009). Certainly, applying human definitions of pleasure is limiting when it comes to what animals might like or dislike. Domestic dogs enjoy rolling in carrion or other material we would label foul smelling; given that this behaviour no longer serves a hunting function, we can assume the dog simply has “an aesthetic appreciation” of the odour (Coren, 2006).

Ultimately, lives that contain pleasure are lives with intrinsic value (Regan 1983). Unlike the lives discussed in the section above, they are ‘lives worth living’ “in which there are better and worse days, and moments that are more or less pleasurable than others” (Balcombe, 2009). Neuroscience and behavioural research has consequently advocated that negative affects experienced in impoverished environments can and should be replaced by positive affects i.e., those experienced by animals living relatively ‘natural’ lives and engaging in behaviours that give them pleasure.

What has the acceptance of animal pleasure meant for welfare?

In 2009 Balcombe complained that while animals’ capacity to suffer has been the mainstay of animal welfare ideologies, scientific exploration of animals’ capacity for pleasure had been lacking from this discourse. Hursthouse discusses this ‘negative utilitarianism’, in which modern utilitarians tend to think more in terms of minimizing suffering than maximizing happiness (2000). Even the Five Freedoms, the foundation of animal welfare policy in agriculture, have been criticised for predominantly focusing on negative subjective experiences (Mellor and Webster, 2014). The last two decades have seen a perspective shift that places greater importance on animals’ positive experiences. It is no longer enough to move net welfare states from ‘a life not worth living’ to ‘a life worth living’ as determined by the Quality of Life (Green and Mellor, 2011) and FAWC scales. Rather, the aim is to reach the third tier in animal welfare: to give animals ‘a good life’. New understanding of animal pleasure discussed earlier has led to environmental enrichment initiatives, acknowledging that if we remove pain but do not introduce some form of gratification, we will have frustrated, mentally unstimulated animals. As conservation biologist George Schaller states, we might secure the animal from danger but “its existence is blunted and banal, its evolutionary force spent, placing it among the living dead” (Bekoff and Pierce, 2017). It is now widely accepted that only by experiencing pleasure can an animal possess a quality of life (McMillan, 2005). This is reflected in the OIE’s inclusion of Positive Welfare States in their 2014 goals for the future of animal welfare, which recognise the importance of providing opportunities for animals to have positive experiences as well as minimising their negative ones (Bayvel and Mellor, 2014).

In 2014, the negative welfare conditions on US poultry magnate Jim Perdue’s broiler farms were brought to public attention, in a rare insider exposé by Compassion in World Farming. Perdue called an Animal Care summit in response and continues to work with CiWF to improve welfare conditions on his farms; his intensive poultry operation was consequently the first in the US to relinquish everyday use of antibiotics, improve housing and increase light. In Perdue’s words, the chickens were for the first time allowed to “mess around” (suggesting they were experiencing natural, unmotivated pleasure) and welfare was dramatically improved (Perdue, 2017).  In the EU there have been broader reaching welfare improvements for animals within current intensive systems, where calves can sometimes suck from an artificial teat; caged hens must have 750 cm² of space, a perch, nest-box and litter; and ‘get away’ farrowing systems allow sows to initiate weaning.

From welfare to well-being

Changing concepts of welfare science and associated enrichment schemes have undoubtedly benefitted many animals in captivity. However the primary focus of animal welfare legislation is still to regulate the use of animals for human benefits, not end it (Sandøe and Christiansen, 2013). The twentieth century concept of ‘civilised’ animal use has survived in welfarism. Welfarism is based on the consensus that while it is morally relevant how animals are treated, their interests are not as important as our own: “animals, since they are conscious, are entitled to some consideration, but must come at the end of the queue, after all human needs have been met” (Midgley, 1983, p.13). In 2015, author Yuval Noah Harari wrote “The scientific community has used most of its growing knowledge of animals mainly to manipulate their lives more efficiently in the service of human industry” (Harari, 2015).  Frustrated that what we already know about animal cognition and emotion has not been translated into a more radical change in human attitudes and practices, Bekoff and Pierce now argue for a ‘science of well-being’ to replace traditional animal welfare science (2017).

While welfarism tries to accommodate animals within a framework of human needs, in the science of well-being the animal is valued for itself, true to Regan’s animal rights philosophy that promotes the intrinsic value of a joyful life. Appleby and Sandøe consider two definitions of well-being: the satisfaction of preferences (desire fulfilment) and the presence of pleasant mental states accompanied by the absence of unpleasant ones (hedonism) (2002). Bekoff’s definition encompasses both, placing animal pleasure first and foremost, rather than as compensation for a life lived mostly in frustrated confinement. A welfarist would demand larger spaces for broiler chickens; a well-being scientist would campaign for the demise of broiler farms altogether, on the basis that these birds are cannot live ‘good lives’ under such conditions no matter how many modifications we make. We shouldn’t be looking into the abattoir and battery farm, says Bekoff: we should be looking at them, “taking full measure of what these places mean for animals” (2017, p.174).

“The bottom line for welfarists is that they’re trying to make life marginally better for animals in the arenas in which animals are exploited, leaving unquestioned the human practices that cause tremendous animal suffering. Welfarism is a salve for our conscience” (Bekoff, 2017).

On this basis, the contribution of enrichment schemes to factory-farmed animal welfare can be seen to have deflected attention from the genuine joy that animals would experience outside of human structures. Compared with ‘real freedom’, the Five Freedoms constitute “a great big consolation prize” in which the animals are the loser of the game and we do what we can to make them feel better about it (Bekoff and Pierce, 2017 p.27).

As Lymbery states, what is really important is “the joy of being alive. Surely it’s not too much to ask for farm animals too?” (2017, p.141).  Yet this is a reminder that however ‘pleasurable’ we make animal lives, we are most often breeding them for slaughter.  When we kill calves, male chicks, used-up dairy cattle, laboratory rats and other beings, we are conceivably denying those animals valuable life yet to be experienced. For Balluch “killing is the greatest harm that can be done to conscious, autonomous beings” (2006).

An uncompromising manifesto

Examining why animal welfare science is ‘failing animals’, with increasing numbers being used in research and intensively farmed, Bekoff concludes that studies have been used to serve the animal industry not the animals themselves (Bekoff and Pierce, 2017). This is not a new revelation; in the 1970s Regan argued that using animals for our purposes is fundamentally wrong and no amount of humane reforms that secure ‘pleasant’ lives for those destined for experiment and slaughter can escape this. We sacrifice animals’ “most precious possessions (their freedom and their lives) for such relatively trivial human ends as gustatory pleasure, and recreation” (Regan, 1983). Yet the majority of stakeholders in animal welfare are heavily invested in these animal industries. We can suppose that Marian Dawkins is using this reasoning when she acknowledges in Why Animals Matter:

“To make sure animal welfare stays on the agenda, we need to focus on the argument that animals provide a service to humans rather than that animals are conscious intelligent beings… Animals matter because they are useful to us” (2012).

She is compromising in a way that Bekoff does not because, for the majority of farmers, ‘putting the animal first’ is not a viable economic option. The changes Perdue made on his farms are expensive: windows to let in light cost $10,000 per barn, and it takes two weeks longer to grow a chicken which equates to one less paycheck a year. Perdue is still researching ways to manage these costs and the sustainability is yet to be determined. Moreover, Perdue’s operation is family owned; unlike other corporations he doesn’t have to worry about shareholder views.  Economic impacts are inescapably the key consideration for such stakeholders, animal welfare mattering only because it enters into “a subset of human preferences” (FAWC 2011). In this context, positive animal welfare causes a ‘positive externality’ only in that it improves the human welfare of those in society concerned about animals.

It is also important not to confuse poor food choices with no food choices (Smith 2017). In 2014, the OIE recognised that while food security is a major challenge for the global community, “animal welfare is sometimes seen as an ‘unaffordable luxury’ in many parts of the world” (Bayvel and Mellor 2014). Of course, even in the developed world, few medical researchers would accept ending animal experimentation at the price of the advancement of human medicine, no matter how far they advocate the 3Rs. Veganism might be growing but it still represents a tiny portion of the consumer population, who are not yet easily convinced to change their diets because animals have not led ‘happy lives’.

Economic and indirect benefits of happy animals

Many farmers have already seen the benefits of current welfare changes; Perdue’s farmers prefer working in his new barns, for instance: “once they’ve gone to windows, they don’t look back” (Perdue 2017). Perdue is also hopeful that the consumer can be convinced to pay more for better welfare meat via social media and other marketing: the successful USP of antibiotic-free meat that has resulted from the improvements in welfare on Perdue’s farms over the last two years has already encouraged their competitors to move in the same direction. Acceptance of smaller improvements in welfare indicate that there is hope for scaling these up, particularly at a time where social media is allowing greater public exposure of both positive and negative animal welfare practices.

This public accountability may mean that ensuring even higher levels of animal welfare is an economic cost worth investment: “The presence of animal welfare externalities and the public good nature of animal welfare mean that intervention by government or other authorities is required to ensure that the level of farm animal welfare desired by society is achieved” (FAWC 2011). This is one of the core implications of indirect theories of animal ethics; that is, harming animals is unethical because it upsets people (Wilson 2017). Therefore even those who do not believe in the direct moral status of animals may have reason to care about the quality of life that these animals receive, if enough of society care. By this thinking, radical reform in animal welfare policy could potentially bring enhanced well-being for humans and animals.


The field of welfare science has moved from a concept of anti-cruelty, to animal protection, to positive animal welfare, which recognises the importance of pleasure in an animal’s life. It is no great stretch to imagine that by focussing more squarely on the animal’s right to ‘the joy of being alive’ we are in a position to move to the next step: animal well-being. However, there is little compromise allowed in Bekoff’s manifesto and at this stage the implementation of animal well-being policies seems idealistic. Of course, in the nineteenth century the concept of ‘animal welfare’ would have seemed equally fantastic. Small shifts in perception may yet induce significant changes in human attitudes and practices: Bekoff hopes for more “moments of disruption and discomfort, where paying attention to who animals really are allows us a greater measure of perspective” (2017:29). This relies on animal well-being advocates finding ways to convince both stakeholders and the general public of the benefits.



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[1] Statistic from Food & Agriculture Association, via Bollard (2017).

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