Quality Pigs

My story is about pigs! How could anything connected with pigs possibly have significant cultural consequences? It comes from research that entails a fundamental change in the scope of scientific inquiry. To appreciate what is at stake, we need to recall a basic assumption in the practice of western science: reliable knowledge about nature depends upon measurement. We can be sure of the wavelength of light rays from the setting sun, but there's no way we can determine the beauty of a sunset. Or we can find out the weight of a pig, but we can never know if a pig is happy or sad. Western science is about quantities, which are regarded as 'objective' properties of the world that everyone using the same method of measurement can agree on. It is not about qualities such as pleasure, pain, honesty, happiness or grief, which are regarded as subjective states that are not objectively real, however important they may seem to us.

But what if it could be shown that qualities can be evaluated just as reliably and consistently as quantities? And by essentially the same scientific procedures? This is what has been shown in studies by a research team working in Edinburgh. People were shown videos of individual pigs interacting in a standard pen with the team leader, Francoise Wemelsfelder. They were asked to write down for each pig any set of terms that they felt described the quality of its behavior. These included words such as bold, aggressive, playful for one animal; timid, shy, nervous for another; indifferent, independent, self-absorbed for a third, and so on. There was no limit to the number of descriptors that could be used for any pig. A routine procedure was then followed in which each pig was evaluated again by each observer using all their chosen pig-descriptive terms and the results compared over the whole group of observers to see if there was consistency of evaluation. This type of procedure is regularly used in evaluation of food quality and flavour, but it has never before been used to see if people agree about an animal's 'subjective' state in terms of its behavior.

The results were startling: there was a high level of consensus among people about the quality of behavior shown by different pigs. Their assessments were not arbitrary, personally idiosyncratic descriptions, but evaluations with a high degree of intersubjective consistency. This is precisely the basis of scientific 'objectivity': agreement between different observers using an agreed method of observation. This opens the door to a science of qualities with startling implications.

The most important aspects of our lives are connected with qualities: quality of relationships, quality of education, quality of our environment, quality of life generally. We spend a great deal of time evaluating the behavior of those on whom we depend and trying to sort out whether they are happy, angry, depressed, reliable, and so on; i.e., we get a lot of practice at evaluating others' internal states by reading their behavior. And on the whole we are pretty good at it, despite dramatic errors of judgement to which we are prone. So it isn't all that surprising that people with no familiarity with pigs should nevertheless be very consistent at evaluating the quality of their behavior. But what is most dramatically lacking in the lives of people in 'developed' countries at the moment is, by general consensus, quality of life. Quantities we have in abundance - of food, technological gadgets of all kinds, cars, aircraft, information, and so on; the things that our science of measurement and quantities has been so successful at providing. But that science has degraded qualities such as beauty, love, joy, grief, and creativity to mere epiphenomal subjectivity, regarding them as ephemeral shadows with no objective reality. We intuitively know better. But now we can actually explore this territory systematically, scientifically, and reinvest our world with the qualities that are essential for living full lives; not just for humans but also for pigs and cows and trees and cities and landscapes and watersheds and cultures and the biosphere. With a science of qualities we can start to recover the wisdom we lost when we restricted our search for reliable knowledge to measurable quantities and cut ourselves off from the qualitative half of the world without which we and all else must perish.