Friday, April 25, 2008

Opposing In Vitro Meat for the Sake of the Animals

On Wednesday the New York Times ran an editorial called "Million Dollar Meat," in which it suggested that if PETA prevailed in its efforts (about which I blogged here) to end the raising and slaughter of animals for meat, this would represent a bad result for the animals as well as for the "cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals." Referring to those who disagree with this position as "radical animal-rights activists," the editorial characterized the contrary view as follows: "better for animals not to exist at all if there is a chance that they would suffer." "It will be a barren world," the Times editors lamented, "if the herds and flocks disappear in favor of meat grown in a laboratory tank."

The position of the Editorial is faulty in a number of respects, of which I shall select two for elaboration, one having to do with the reality of modern "farming" and the other with the theoretical assumptions that underlie its claims.

As a practical matter, though the editors claim to be "disgusted by the [inhumane] conventional meat industry in this country," it is in fact that very industry that raises and slaughters the overwhelming majority of the billions of land animals who die every year in this country to satisfy people's appetite for flesh. PETA is accordingly not the one driving out the "herds and flocks" or failing to "treasure the cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals" that so enriches our lives, according to the Times editors. It is the real-life meat industry (along with the consumers of meat who directly fund that industry) that does that. The editors seem to harbor an idyllic vision of what farming is or might soon be, a vision that may come from songs like "Old MacDonald had a farm" rather than the real world.

To make the question more difficult, however, let us assume reality away. Assume that the concentrated animal feeding operations that currently mass-produce the meat available at the supermarket could be successfully terminated in favor of the sort of farm that treats the animals with, as the editors want, the "least possible cruelty." Is it then better to live as an animal on such a farm than never to have been born at all? Consider, in answering this question, that most animals on a farm will be killed in the prime of their lives (for that is when they are most suitable for being eaten), separated from their young (for that is how people will be able to dine on lamb -- baby sheep -- and veal -- baby cows), and then killed in a manner that is intended to preserve their meat rather than minimize their pain (by contrast, for example, to euthanasia). Remember too that even the relatively small number of animals who currently live part of their lives in relatively benign conditions end up in a stockyard where the smell of death is palpable and where the eyes and screams of the animals tell us everything we need to know about the "chance that they would suffer."

The ultimate problem with the Times editors' position is that it accepts an argument with respect to animals that it would never accept with respect to human beings, no matter how compromised: that being born to be a mere "thing" for others to use and consume is necessarily better than not being born at all. Imagine for a moment a world in which the state used technology to produce severely compromised human children with the objective of farming these children for organs to service those requiring transplants among the rest of the population. Assume that the babies and children were treated relatively humanely until the need for their organs arose but that the priority would remain the organs, whenever a contest might arise between the wellbeing of the children and the viability of their organs for future transplant. The idea of such a system should rightly horrify readers, even if the babies and children involved would never have been created in the first place in the absence of the organ farming program. Better -- without a doubt -- for them never to have been born (or, if one is pro-life, to have never been conceived) than to have been born into that. We would, moreover, be horrified even though organ farming could save human lives, a far worthier end than satisfying the appetite for flesh in a world with so many healthful and delicious alternatives. (For a fictional account of the horrors of such a system even if rendered as humane as possible, consider Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go.)

So, why are we horrified? Is it simply because such babies and children are made up of human DNA? If so, that represents pure "species-ism", as arbitrary and baseless as decisions made purely on the basis of sex or race. If not, then mightn't it be because such babies and children, even though not as mentally able as other people, have experiences of being alive, including of pain and of pleasure, and thus deserve to be treated as valuable in and of themselves rather than as instruments for other people's use? And doesn't a cow or a sheep deserve as much?

Posted by Sherry Colb


Brennan said...

"To make the question more difficult, however, let us assume reality away."

That is too rich.

First, "assuming reality away" doesn't make political/moral/ethical issues harder; it makes them easier. If we're going to eschew reality, let's imagine that all of your political opponents were cannibalistic Nazis. Then I would (probably) prefer your political views to theirs. So what?

Second, identifying as a "problem" the fact that the NYT editors draw a moral distinction between animals and humans might tell me something about your opinion, but neither that statement nor your hypothetical comes even close to a persuasive argument that your view is correct.

Third, when you have a bacterial illness, does your anti-species-ist position mean that you will refuse to take anti-biotics (which would display a clear preference for your DNA other the DNA of that poor, innocent bacteria)? Or, if you think that the moral equivalency of humans and other animals only applies to "higher" vertebrates or mammals, do you believe that carnivores which ingest other higher life forms are, by that fact, "immoral"? (I'm imagining carnivore re-education camps: "Bad lion! Bad!" Awesome!)

Fourth, thanks for giving me a chuckle at the beginning of the day, but you missed April 1st by several weeks.

Derek said...


"Assuming reality away" is indeed a poor tactic when it is to your own favor. But Prof. Colb is saying that even if those who disagree with her are *correct* (a point she isn't "in reality" willing to concede) their argument still fails. That move is more than fair, and just makes her argument stronger.

Second, if you think that the species a creature belongs to is not a morally relevant consideration, that does not mean that there are no morally relevant properties that some species have and others don't. So there is nothing incoherent about being an anti-specieist and denying that bacteria have moral worth. All you'd need to do is to come up with some property that, for instance, cows and sheep have that bacteria lack. The ability to experience pleasure and pain comes to mind...

Brennan said...

"... if you think that the species a creature belongs to is not a morally relevant consideration, that does not mean that there are no morally relevant properties that some species have and others don't."

Actually, I think it does mean that. If you think that which species an animal belongs to is never morally relevant, then there can be no morally relevant properties that some species have and others don't. That's what it would mean to have a "morally relevant property" as a species - that such a property would have to be taken account of in judging actions taken with respect to that species, but not equivalent actions taken with respect to a species without that "morally relevant property."

I am curious as to what meaning might otherwise be given to "morally relevant property."

Tam Ho said...

To add to Derek's point, one further distinction between taking antibiotics to cure a bacterial infection and the cruel treatment of animals for purposes of human consumption is that the former can be justified on the basis of self defense, while the latter cannot.

These distinctions are blindingly obvious.

Tam Ho said...

Also, as to the point that animals are carnivores: animal behavior is not a guide to what is morally permissible (after all, they kill and eat their own offspring).

The only question is which of these two comments by me is more blindingly obvious.

Derek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek said...

"If you think that which species an animal belongs to is never morally relevant, then there can be no morally relevant properties that some species have and others don't."

That doesn't follow. The idea is that simply being a member of a particular species isn't, in and of itself, morally relevant. Now it might be the case that there is some other property P that is morally relevant (e.g. capacity to suffer, free will, whatever) and that only certain species have that property. In that sense of course you're right, to that extent it will be relevant what species a creature belongs to. But still, what is fundamentally at issue is P, not species membership.

Think of it this way: I don't know if you believe this but, if you do, why is it wrong to torture a human to satisfy one's appetite but not wrong to torture an animal to satisfy one's appetite? To avoid a charge of speciesism you have to give an answer that goes deeper than the fact that the first individual is human and the second non-human.

There are plenty of non-speciesist answers to this question. You can say, for example, that only humans have souls, and it's only wrong to hurt creatures with souls. Or you can argue that torture is only bad if the creature has the sophisticated sets of beliefs and desires which are found only in humans, or that morality is born of a social contract to which only humans are bound, etc.

But for each of these claims you'd have to give an argument as to why that property (souls, beliefs/desires, hypothetical contract) is what invests a creature with moral worth. And, of course, you'd have to give good reasons to believe that, for instance, there are such things as souls and only humans have them. Your opponent has to do the same thing, of course, for whatever property she thinks is relevant.

Prof. Colb, I assume, thinks that the capacity to experience pain and pleasure is enough to guarantee at least some measure of moral recognition, and I think that gels with most people's pre-theoretical intuitions (though of course not everyone's). Why is it okay to stomp on your cell phone, but not on a puppy? One natural answer is that the puppy will suffer, the cell phone won't.

If you choose to disagree with this claim, that's not necessarily speciesist. The speciesist is someone who thinks P is the property of being human, full stop. Anti-speciesists think that claim is both counterintuitive and arbitrary.

Go back and read the last paragraph of Prof. Colb's post. She makes her case very clearly.

Unknown said...

The ultimate problem with the Times editors' position is that it accepts an argument with respect to animals that it would never accept with respect to human beings, no matter how compromised: that being born to be a mere "thing" for others to use and consume is necessarily better than not being born at all.

Actually, the point of the editorial was that traditional farming techniques do not use domesticated animals as mere things, but exhibit a concern with the welfare of the animals that is completely lacking in large-scale factory farming. You might be right that the lives of even traditionally farmed animals are not worth living, but it's not because they are being used as mere tools.

I also think there is a third possible explanation of the horror people are likely to feel toward organ farming - that it's the moral equivalent of lobotomizing an otherwise healthy new-born in order to steal its organs. This objection depends neither on the mere fact that the thing being farmed is human nor on the pain and suffering the process would produce, but on the fact that it would both deprive the person of the kind of life humans ordinarily look forward to leading and violates certain deeply held moral prohibitions against theft.

It's possible, of course, that this explanation might be reducible to charge of speciesism as well, but there is always the risk in such a move that the inconsistency will be resolved not in favor of granting animals greater rights, but in extending humans fewer.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Carl makes some interesting points. On the issue of whether traditional farming methods do or do not treat animals as mere property, I still think that they do. The traditional approach to farm animals was, in some ways, less cruel and horrific than today's approach, but that was not because people in general were treating their animals as something other than property (e.g., something that had individual entitlements that could override the owner's interest in exploiting the property) but rather, because people did not have quite the same mass-production imagination and capacity as they have today. To appreciate the animals' nonetheless having the status of mere property, however, note that whenever a contest arose between a demand for human use (e.g. to eat the animal when it tastes best and provides the most meat) and the animal's need (e.g. to be close to her children or not to be castrated, an excruciating and unanesthetized procedure), the demand for human use won. Within that structure, of course, there were moments of rising above the ordinary approach, but that does not alter the character of farming, which considered animal welfare only insofar as it did not measurably diminish the bottom line (which was more often the case in traditional farms than is the case on factory farms today). Even if the lives they had were worth living, once they were born, of course, that still would not justify the cruelty or the killing. Perhaps some of the organ donor children in my example would prefer to have been born into organ slavery than never to have been born at all. Nonetheless, that fact (coupled with the fact that in the absence of the farming industry, they would not have been born) does not justify their treatment. That's all I meant in saying that it is better not to produce such creatures at all than to produce them for our own use. I mean that from a moral point of view, the fact that a slave might prefer to exist as a slave than never to have been born at all does not justify slavery, even if the particular slave would never have come into existence were it not for the institution of slavery. On the question whether critiquing species-ism might lead to worse treatment for human beings, I tend to doubt it, although this is an empirical question. One could say that we should leave racism or sexism alone, because everyone might come to be treated horribly, just as minorities and women used to be treated categorically. Whether or not such critiques were predictively accurate, I don't think we can justify atrocities by limiting the categories of victims. Our toleration of atrocities against animals, if anything, coarsens us and makes us more apathetic and tolerant about other atrocities that effect those who fall outside of our circle of concern.

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