Economic Agency for Elephants

Don Ross

Humans typically manipulate animals by conditioning their responses or by threatening them with harm. Neither of these forms of interaction treats them as economic agents who make choices under incentives. I describe economic experiments underway with 7 elephants to allow for quantitative modeling of their agency, as we do with people. The experimental design includes control by the elephants over their own participation. Its potential practical implications include opening a channel for in-principle unbounded communication with elephants about contingencies, and management of elephant-human conflict risk by bargaining over such contingencies instead of conditioning or threatening by humans. The style of analysis is also ethically significant, since it involves modeling each elephant as an individual (in a social context), rather than estimating population averages that implicitly frame all elephants as interchangeable. These methods respect elephants in the specific ways that best ethical practice requires human experimental participants to be respected. Finally, economic agency is a core aspect of practical personhood, so interacting with elephants as economic agents implies a strong element of effective – as opposed to unilateral or honourary – recognition of elephants as persons.

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