Monday, August 30, 2010

Is Genetically Engineering Animals to Feel No Pain a Moral Solution?

By Ori J. Herstein

An interesting article and a New York Times op-ed piece argue for genetically engineering livestock so as to lower their capacity to experience pain as a partial solution to the moral repugnancy of the mainstream animal-product industry. Shriver (the author), who explains the science much better than I ever could, defends this position on utilitarian grounds. In a nutshell, considering the bleak realities of the animal-product industry and the fact that people are not likely to stop consuming animal-products any time soon, and considering that we are under a moral obligation to reduce the pain in the world, genetically engineering animals to experience less pain is a morally desirable course of action. While problematic for various reasons, I think this proposal does have some appeal: pain is bad, and a world with less pain would be, all other things being equal, better.

But of course things are rarely equal. Shriver does attempt to answer several possible criticisms to his position: reducing animal’s capacity to experience pain would cause them to injure themselves more; as a tactical matter, there is a problem for the animal liberation movement to concede that humanity will not soon turn towards veganism; arguments from animal rights; and, objections to genetically modifying food. Some of Shriver’s formulations of the objections to his position are better than others, as are his responses.

My challenge (which perhaps on a higher level of abstraction demonstrates a qualm about utilitarianism in general) to Shriver’s proposal questions the logic of his argument as a moral argument. What makes someone into a moral patient – i.e., someone who is of moral considerability – is manifesting certain morally significant attributes. For example, people’s capacity to reason enables them to act for reasons, thereby making people into autonomous beings not subject to their passions and urges. And autonomy is something worthy of respect. At least one main feature of animals that bestows on them moral considerability is their capacity to feel pain and pleasure. Because animals have such a capacity we have a prima facie reason not to cause animals pain.

Significantly reducing animals’ capacity to experience pain would essentially remove some of the attributes that bestow on them moral considerability. Shriver’s solution does not, therefore, solve the moral problem of animal suffering but rather dissolves it by transforming animals into creature that are no longer of moral considerability (in the relevant sense). It is an approach that - to an extent, taking certain liberties, and perhaps not being fully charitable – shares a similar logic with the following proposal: solving entrenched subjugation, enslavement, and deep disrespect for the autonomy of members of minority-group M at the hands of majority-group R by lobotomizing all Ms, or more accurately by genetically engineering all Ms to beget (effectively) lobotomized children.

5 comments:

Michael C. Dorf said...

Very interesting post, Ori. I agree with the bottom line, in part but uneasily for the reason you suggest. The reason for my uneasiness is that I think that, as you indicate with your disclaimer ("taking certain liberties, and perhaps not being fully charitable"), the analogy does not fully work. Lobotomizing or otherwise eliminating the capacities that make individual humans or non-humans moral patients (or moral agents, but that's not directly relevant here) does a harm to those individual humans or non-humans: It robs them of the relevant valuable capacities. By contrast, genetically engineering and then creating creatures that lack the relevant capacities in the first place doesn't harm the now-hypothetical creatures that otherwise would have come into existence absent the genetic engineering. I get THAT conclusion from YOUR fascinating dissertation on the non-identity problem. So while I share your sense that the genetic engineering is somehow a kind of "cheating," if it really did dramatically reduce the suffering inherent in the animal business--if, for example, it replaced cows with sheets of unicellular cow cultures--I would regard that as an unequivocal gain (although I still wouldn't eat the stuff, but now exclusively on health grounds).

Nonetheless, I share your bottom line more or less unequivocally because most of the suffering that occurs in the animal exploitation business is best described as psychological rather than physical: The extreme crowding, the denial of the social interactions that make for a satisfying life in the wild relatives of the sorts of animals held in captivity; the lack of exercise; and the anticipation of death. And that is to say nothing of the killing itself. So even on utilitarian grounds, it seems to me this is a close call at best. The lack of pain receptors may make the lives of some animals marginally less dreadful than would have been the lives of the pain-experiencing animals they replace, but if the knowledge that meat is "painless" motivates even a small number of people to resist giving up meat and other animal products, then the genetic engineering will have done more harm than good.

And I'm not a utilitarian.

Ori Herstein said...

Thanks Mike.

My analogy was rhetorically attractive, but confusing.

I tend to agree on the non-identity point: genetically engineering currently living animals to beget non-pain-experiencing-animals (probably) does not harm those future animals.

Yet, my challenge was not that the future animals are harmed, but whether or not the scheme Shriver suggests is a moral one, as he thinks it is. This is not to say that his is an immoral scheme only that perhaps it is a-moral. If fact P (e.g., animals feel pain) gives (conclusive) moral reasons to Y, then the moral thing to do is to Y. Shriver’s position is not to Y but to remove fact P from the world. He thinks that all things considered that is a moral good. I question whether it is. I am not saying there is a moral reason not to remove P from the world (there may very well be), only that removing it from the world is not an action that is subject to moral reasoning. Here P is the instigator of the moral issue: without it there simply is no moral issue. No sense in which what we do is right or wrong.

Of course if you de-personalize morality, which is not my tendency, Shriver’s position seems more appealing: he exchanges a future filled with suffering animals with one in which there are no suffering animals. All other things being equal, this does seem the right choice from a moral point of view. This is why I said in the post that there is something appealing about the proposal. But the deprivation in value derived from choosing a world with fewer morally relevant facts (such as animal pain/pleasure) is something to keep in mind. Remember: morality protects value.

But this is complicated stuff and I may be muddling the matter.

N.M.C. said...

Professor Dorf,
You wouldn't eat unicellular cow cultures exclusively on health grounds? While its your perogative to draw whatever lines you want with respect to what you will and won't eat for health reasons, this does seem to be an irrational position. You might well agree that you've drawn this line arbitrarily, but it kind of comes across as a purely dogmatic opposition to meat. I presume that you eat other kinds of foods that aren't healthy when consumed in excessive quantities. What's different about a steak from unicellular cow cultures. It shouldn't be a staple of your diet, but how would eating one every once in a while be that different than enjoying the occasional basket of french fries with a pitcher of vegan beer?

Michael C. Dorf said...

NMC: I don't eat baskets of fries either. I used to, and it was hard to give them up, but once I had done so for a couple of weeks, I found that I no longer felt the urge to eat such stuff. One of the problems with eating very high-fat foods is that they create and sustain an appetite for such foods. Or at least I found that this was true in my case, and that there are doctors who confirm this. E.g.,
www.heartattackproof.com
But to be perfectly clear, I do not regard this as a moral issue.

Bob Hockett said...

On the health effects of even unicellular cow cultures -- indeed all animal proteins -- N.M.C., you might take a look at this interesting study: http://www.thechinastudy.com/about.html