Socio-cognitive abilities of free-ranging pigs, their effects on stress management, and their practical and ethical implications

Postdoc project by Judith Benz-Schwarzburg (2014-2017) and Susana Monsó (2017)

This project was financed by the Messerli Foundation and conducted by researchers of all three Messerli Units together.

Dr. Judith Benz-Schwarzburg from the Ethics unit explored complex socio-cognitive abilities in pigs from an ethical perspective. In the papers and presentations that she prepared during the project time she argued that complex socio-cognitive abilities in animals in general and in pigs in specific give rise to welfare implications and to implications beyond welfare. She discussed her ethical findings in connection with psychological and sociological aspects. Benz-Schwarzburg also incorporated in her ethical consideration new developments in the biotech and livestock sector (e.g. the successful gene-editing of super-muscly pigs). For the last period of the project, Dr. Susana Monsó (also a philosopher by training) joined the project.

In general, the use of pigs for meat production is the main area of ethical concern in the human-pig relationship. Furthermore, a comparison between dogs and pigs proves to be illuminating, given the possibly similar socio-cognitive capacities of these species in contrast to their obviously divergent moral status: Whereas dogs enjoy the moral status of “beloved pets”, pigs are perceived as “delicious pork”. From an ethical perspective the reasons for such a divergent moral status often seem dissatisfactory and their analysis asks for an interdisciplinary approach.

Besides such applied debates the question of complex social cognition in pigs is also of relevance for theoretical debates in philosophy, like the debate on animal agency and moral abilities in animals. The latter might be present in animals if they show pro-social and possibly empathetically motivated behavior (like helping, caring, consolation, or cooperation), or, if they show inequity aversion or any other behavior driven by moral emotions. What morality in animals is (from a conceptual perspective) is an open question, however. The same holds for the ethical implications of such capacities in animals. In an FWF project Benz-Schwarzburg and Monsó (together with a Phd student, Birte Wrage, MA) embarked on this research (Project: “Morality in animals: what it means and why it matters”, PI: Dr. Judith Benz-Schwarzburg).
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