Within the animal ethics discussions, there has been increased interest in determining how we can go about eating animal flesh in a “nice way.” As the argument goes, human beings are not, in the foreseeable future, going to cut meat out of their diet. Thus, the best we can hope for is reduced animal suffering.
Traditionally, this “nice way” of eating animals has been identified as “benign carnivorism,” which McMahan describes as eating animals who are “reared in conditions that are at least no worse, and are perhaps even better, than typical conditions in the wild.” Think of “happy meat” and “animal husbandry,” or any euphemism which encourages consumers to imagine that the animals they eat lived a fulfilling life, rolling in green pastures, happily relaxing in the sun, nibbling on grass, and sleeping peacefully and comfortably in the shelter of a well kept barn.
A recent alternative to traditional benign carnivorism, often referred to as “diminishment,” has been discussed by a number of ethicists, including Rollin (2003), Shriver (2009), Cooper (1998), and Clark (1997). Diminishment refers to using biotechnology, specifically genetic engineering, to create transgenic farm animals with a “diminished” ability to experience pleasure or pain (or ideally, without the capacity to feel pain altogether). Essentially, there are two forms of diminishment: (1) ex-post diminishment, which occurs after a being has come into existence, and (2) ex-ante diminishment: diminishments that occur prior to the being coming into existence.
Rollin (2003) presents a controversial alternative to animal husbandry, bringing biotechnology to the forefront of the animal agriculture discussion. While Rollin clearly opposes ex-post diminishment he seems to find ex-ante diminishment perfectly acceptable. As he writes, “…given a telos, we should respect the interests which flow from it. This principle does not logically entail that we cannot modify the telos and thereby generate different or alternative interests.” His solution, then, to the problem of factory farming, is a form of ex-ante diminishment: altering the telos of animals so that we bring “happier” animals into existence. So for instance, he asks his readers to imagine engineering a chicken who finds satisfaction and pleasure laying an egg in a cage rather than a nest. How wonderful this would be if we could create a being who enjoys being locked in a cage for the duration of its life! The thesis, then, is that if an animal’s nature can be modified so that its telos are better suited for the environment in which it is born (in this case factory farms), then this modification is a good thing. Biotechnology: score!
In this same spirit, McMahan (2008) invites us to imagine using genetic engineering to “create animals that would die naturally on a predictable schedule and in good health.” This way, we can eat the animals we “lovingly” raise without having to experience the moral guilt of actually killing them since they would die so “naturally” on their own. Somehow, he finds it hard to find something wrong with such a practice.
Although both McMahan (2008) and Rollin (2003) provide us with mere hypothetical genetic engineering thought experiments, recently, Adam Shriver (2009) proposed that we can and should genetically engineer farm animals so that they have a diminished or completely eliminated capacity to suffer. Thus would be done through genetic manipulation that would “modulate the affective dimension of pain while leaving the sensory dimension relatively intact.” The end result is what Shriver refers to as knockout animals: animals lacking the AC1 and AC8 enzymes, which ultimately interferes with cAMP cycle in the brain, which would reduce the affective dimension of chronic or persistent pain. Apparently, this is the long awaited “solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering” (Shriver 2009).
It seems that we are moving in an even more radical direction which might include the creation of what Cooper (1998) and Clark (1997) refer to as “microcephalic lumps”: blind, deaf, legless lumps of animal flesh, completely incapable of feeling pain or suffering (note that neither Cooper nor Clark necessarily agree with the creation of microcephalic lumps). With the latest creation of the “first” In Vitro hamburger, we just might be there. Essentially, if we are successful at creating microcephalic lumps or blobs of In Vitro meat, we would have animals or cells of animals that, according to Owens (2003), have the “same status as a rock, which earns no protection.”
Now, we are presented with the following claim: if pain and suffering is what is at stake in the animal liberation debate and we can create, raise, and kill animals or blobs of animal flesh without causing any pain or suffering, what’s the moral issue with creating senseless animals or microcephalic lumps?
Well here is the first issue: pain and suffering is NOT the only thing at stake when discussing animal liberation. What is at stake is the identification of nonhuman animals as objects; as beings who can be modified, tampered with, altered, and controlled by the almighty, all knowing, all entitled human. As Schicktanz (2006) argues, the human-animal relationship is threatened by genetic engineering due to the imbalanced distribution of power between humans and animals.
Until we eradicate the human sense of entitlement to dominate nonhuman animals, animal exploitation will continue. Thus, liberating animals requires that we not just drown out the screams, moans, and sorrows of nonhuman animals by turning them into lumps of flesh. Rather, it requires re-examining the human-animal relationship and putting it back into balance by letting animals be. Let’s, for once, take our greedy little hands and fancy technology away from the nonhuman animal world and start attempting to live in harmony with nonhuman animals, which requires not changing their nature and not eating them altogether.
To defer to technology to solve our moral issues is a failure to hold individuals accountable for their own actions and participation in animal exploitation. It is not the animals who need to be changed: it is we, the arrogant, entitled, selfish, greedy, uncompassionate, humans who need to change. It is a change of human character that is needed; not a change of farming methods.
So here is one last thought: is our solution, in the human realm, to genetically engineer humans so they cannot experience pain? I mean, we could easily argue that genocide will never end. There will always be people living in impoverished third world countries, suffering painful lives and deaths due to starvation and disease. In response to this moral tragedy, should we just genetically engineer them so they can’t experience any pain? Maybe we can give all of the women a pill so that if they have children, they will be born without the capacity to experience pain or suffering? Or maybe we can give the women a pill which causes them to give birth to microcephalic lumps? I sure hope we don’t opt for this solution.
If we are willing to solve human tragedies in ways that do not involve genetic engineering, then we should also rethink our methods of ending moral tragedies that involve nonhuman animals. The one difference between the two cases is this: it is so easy to end the exploitation of nonhuman animals in agriculture. We don’t need a fancy, expensive, scientific solution. It’s this simple: Just stop eating them altogether.
Rollin, B. 1995. The Frankenstein Syndrome. Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animal. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Rollin, B. 2003. “On telos and genetic-engineering.” In: Armstrong SJ, Botzler RG, editors. Animal Ethics Reader. London, UK: Routledge, pp. 342–350.
Clark, S. 1997. “Natural Integrity and Biotechnology” in David S. Oderberg and Jacqueline A. Laing (ed.) Human Lives. Critical Essays on Consequentialist Bioethics. Macmillan Press, London, pp. 58–76
Cooper, D. 1998. “Intervention, Humility, and Animal Integrity,” in Animal Biotechnology and Ethics, edited by A. Holland. Chapman and Hall.
McMahan, J. 2008. “Eating Animals the Nice Way.” Dædalus. Winter 2008, pp. 66-76.
Owens, J. 2003. “The Future of the Animal Rights Movement: Environmental Conflict, Artificial Intelligence, and Beyond.” 33 ELR 10265, 10270-72.
Schicktanz, S. 2006. “Ethical considerations of the human-animal-relationship under conditions of asymmetry and ambivalence.” Journal of Agriculture Environmental Ethics (19), pp. 7–16.
Shriver, A. 2009, “Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality has Stalled?” Neuroethics 2 (3).