Socio-cognitive abilities in animals and their relevance for animal ethics and animal welfare

Doctoral project by Judith Benz-Schwarzburg, 2006-2012

Dr. Benz-Schwarzburg’s research illuminates the contradictions between recognizing animals as “cognitive kin” and still treating them as “moral strangers”. Combining detailed knowledge of animal behavior with profound considerations of animal rights and animal welfare is what she aims at. The main research questions are: Do animals possess complex cognitive and emotional abilities such as culture, language, theory of mind or morality? And if so, what does it mean for the human-animal relationship, if animals “come close”?

The project specifically focused on the question of culture, language and theory of mind in animals. Empirical studies from different scientific fields provide increasing evidence that certain animals demonstrate at least some aspects of these phenomena. Non-anthropocentric and non-monolithic definitions of such capacities have to be developed. In addition, ethical implications of recognizing animals as our cognitive kin have to be considered. The purported human-uniqueness with regard to complex cognition and complex emotions has long been considered adequate justification for attributing to humans a moral status markedly superior to that granted to animals and for justifying very different standards of treatment. This becomes questionable in the light of our growing knowledge on animals’ abilities. Treating animals like kin in moral theories can lead to strong welfare demands or even to inalienable rights for (some) animals. The gap between justifiable theoretical claims and the actual situation of animals in captivity and in the wild can be seen as the core characteristic of animal ethics in the 21st century.

The project was completed with the doctor's degree at the University of Tübingen, Germany. It was supervised by Prof. Dr. Eve-Marie Engels (University of Tübingen, Germany) and Prof. Dr. Hanno Würbel (University of Bern, Switzerland). The thesis was published 2012 with Harald Fischer Publishing (http://www.haraldfischerverlag.de/hfv/Buecher/benz-schwarzburg.php [Link 1]) and awarded two prizes, the PhD Prize of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Tuebingen 2012 and the German Study Prize 2013 (Deutscher Studienpreis, 2nd place, category Cultural Studies & Humanities).

Publication December 2012 [Link 2]