Animals feel pleasure

In this article, animal behaviourist Jonathan Balcombe discusses the ability of animals to feel pleasure, which provides further points of discussion about the sentience of animals. I’ve lived with several animals over the years; I have absolutely no doubt that they can feel pain, pleasure, contentment, and an assortment of other feelings. In his book  The exultant ark: A pictorial tour of animal pleasure, Balcombe celebrates the full range of animal experience with dramatic portraits of animal pleasure ranging from the charismatic and familiar to the obscure and bizarre.  Below are two images from the book: 

Piggy Love

Balcombe provides an earlier and more in depth discussion of animal pleasure in Balcombe, J. (2009). Animal pleasure and its moral significance. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 118 (3/4), 208–216. Part of his discussion focuses on animals and play: what is largely lacking in discussions of animal play is its affective element. Inasmuch as the context and expression of animal play often resemble that of human play, we may expect that it is pleasurable for them, too. Having fun seems to many of us the main characteristic of animal play. 

Balcombe argues that lives that contain pleasure are lives with intrinsic value That is to say, an individual who can experience good feelings has a life that is of value to that individual, independent of any value that individual’s life might have to another, for example as a source of entertainment, or revenue. Put another way, an animal who can experience pleasure has the capacity for a quality of life  It is a life worth living, one in which there are better and worse days, and moments that are more or less pleasurable than others.

Balcombe concludes that our treatment of animals continues to languish in a Cartesian framework, one that permits the sacrificing of animals’ most precious possessions (their freedom and their lives) for such relatively trivial human ends as gustatory pleasure, and recreation

Balcombe’s focus on animal pleasure is a welcome addition to the discussion of animal sentience which, perhaps unfortunately, has tended to focus heavily on animals’ abilities to feel pain and suffering. Peter Singer, for example, one of the most influential proponents of animal sentience and rights, has focused almost exclusively on animals’ capacity to suffer. As Balcombe suggests, if we view animals’ interests solely in terms of avoiding pain and suffering, then the case for their moral protection appears sound. When we include their capacity for pleasure, the case is made stronger.


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