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.