Saturday, September 05, 2009

Technology outpaces our morality again...

Just to throw a new wrinkle into the animal rights/industrial agriculture debate consider the possibilities of animals genetically modified to tolerate industrial production methods. What if we could breed animals indifferent to pain?
"If we can't do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused," says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative (Neuroethics, DOI: 10.1007/s12152-009-9048-6). "I'm offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering."

Humans consume nearly 300 million tonnes of meat each year. Our appetite for flesh has risen by 50 per cent since the 1960s, and the trend looks set to continue. Most of this will likely come from factory farms, notorious for cramped quarters and ill treatment of animals. Battery farm chickens, for instance, routinely have part of their beaks removed without anaesthetic or pain relief to prevent them from pecking their neighbours.
Progress in understanding and manipulating the molecular and genetic bases for pain means ethics and economics, not technical feasibility, may end up determining whether Shriver's proposal becomes a reality. [More]
This is not as far-fetched as it may seem, and I'm not sure I oppose it. Reducing the stress and pain in food animals is not a bad thing.  Nor is genetic modification greatly removed from the slower inbreeding for similar traits like docility.
The larger issue for many is a relative value framework, I think.
This doesn't mean we should welcome the creation of pain-free animals, though. The reason we find the idea so disquieting is that it runs counter to our visceral sense of right and wrong. This is known as the "yuck factor" and it is a common reaction to advances in biotechnology and biomedicine such as cloning, genetic modification and human-animal chimeras.
Some conservative commentators argue that the yuck factor is a reliable indicator that a moral Rubicon has been crossed. Yet all too often such distaste is irrational and a barrier to progress. Progressive thought often comes from ignoring such reactions and thinking things through logically instead.
In this case, however, there is value in the yuck factor. Yes, logically speaking, pain-free animals make sense. But only in a world that has already devalued animal lives to the point where factory farming is acceptable. Our visceral reaction to pain-free animals is actually a displaced reaction against the system that makes them necessary. [More]
Such statements seem sound in the moment, but my feeling is we adapt much faster and more completely to such ethical puzzles than we expect.  Consider how we embraced artificial insemination, for example.  Once scorned by traditionalists, today few livestock of commercial value breed naturally.
"Yuck" has a short half-life, in other words.  
I don't think we have heard the last of this one.


Anonymous said...

Good luck confining or controlling animals that can't feel pain!

John Phipps said...


Whoa - great point!

Anonymous said...

good luck keeping them healthy too with all the self inflicted injuries they'll get while not feeling a thing.

Ol James said...

The truth about it is, they have been doing it for decades in sports. Guess this would give Congress something else to investigate...huh? Then again...the military would like this too...and employers and insurance companies, etc., etc..

Bill Harshaw said...

Isn't this an extension of the process of domestication? When we tame anything, we teach them not to feel stress (= pain) at having humans nearby, to like their new and unnatural environment. And we select for those characteristics, thereby breeding more docility.