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Scientific research on 'animal welfare' began because of ethical concerns over the quality of life of animals, and the public looks to animal welfare research for guidance regarding these concerns. The conception of animal welfare used by scientists must relate closely to these ethical concerns if the orientation of the research and the interpretation of the findings is to address them successfully.

At least three overlapping ethical concerns are commonly expressed regarding the quality of life of animals: (1) that animals should lead natural lives through the development and use of their natural adaptations and capabilities, (2) that animals should feel well by being free from prolonged and intense fear, pain, and other negative states, and by experiencing normal pleasures, and (3) that animals should function well, in the sense of satisfactory health, growth and normal functioning of physiological and behavioural systems. Various scientists have proposed restricted conceptions of animal welfare that relate to only one or other of these three concerns. Some such conceptions are based on value positions about what is truly important for the quality of life of animals or about the nature of human responsibility for animals in their care. Others are operational claims: (1) that animal welfare research must focus on the functioning of animals because subjective experiences fall outside the realm of scientific enquiry, or (2) that studying the functioning of animals is sufficient because subjective experiences and functioning are closely correlated. We argue that none of these positions provides fully satisfactory guidance for animal welfare research.

We suggest instead that ethical concerns about the quality of life of animals can be better captured by recognizing three classes of problems that may arise when the adaptations possessed by an animal do not fully correspond to the challenges posed by its current environment. (1) If animals possess adaptations that no longer serve a significant function in the new environment, then unpleasant subjective experiences may arise, yet these may not be accompanied by significant disruption to biological functioning. Thus, a bucket-fed calf may experience a strong, frustrated desire to suck, even though it obtains adequate milk. (2) If the environment poses challenges for which the animal has no corresponding adaptation, then functional problems may arise, yet these may not be accompanied by significant effects on subjective feelings. Thus, a pig breathing polluted air may develop lung damage without appearing to notice or mind the problem. (3) Where animals have adaptations corresponding to the kinds of environmental challenges they face, problems may still arise if the adaptations prove inadequate. For example, an animal's thermoregulatory adaptations may be insufficient in a very cold environment such that the animal both feels poorly and functions poorly. We propose that all three types of problems are causes of ethical concern over the quality of life of animals and that they together define the subject matter of animal welfare science.