If technology eliminates suffering, is factory farming ethical? – A National Core for Neuroethics Journal Club

cow1This week’s journal club focused on a controversial paper by Adam Shriver entitled, “Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality has Stalled?” in the most recent issue of Neuroethics.  Adding to the usual vigour of our discussion was the participation of five of our colleagues from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany who were visiting as part of our joint project on cognitive enhancement.  From the abstract of Shriver’s paper, one can get a sense of the issues that it raises.

Though the vegetarian movement sparked by Peter Singers book Animal Liberation has achieved some success, there is more animal suffering caused today due to factory farming than there was when the book was originally written. In this paper, I argue that there may be a technological solution to the problem of animal suffering in intensive factory farming operations. In particular, I suggest that recent research indicates that we may be very close to, if not already at, the point where we can genetically engineer factory-farmed livestock with a reduced or completely eliminated capacity to suffer. In as much as animal suffering is the principal concern that motivates the animal welfare movement, this development should be of central interest to its adherents. Moreover, I will argue that all people concerned with animal welfare should agree that we ought to replace the animals currently used in factory farming with animals whose ability to suffer is diminished if we are able to do so.

We began our discussion by accepting the assumption that a transgenic animal which did not suffer could be produced  (although many in the room were quite rightly skeptical of the proposition). We then proceeded to collecting some data of our own.  After having read the paper, the participants were asked to comment on the proposition that factory farming + transgenic elimination of suffering = ethically acceptable.  Two agreed, five disagreed, four mostly disagreed, and one person held a middle view; the general impression of the group was that elimination of suffering, if it could be achieved, was insufficient to allow continued support for factory farming.

I should say at the outset that it quickly became clear that the vegetarians in the room had the moral high ground. Having eschewed eating of meat, they did not have to take responsibility for the horrors of factory farming in the same way that us omnivores do.  Of course, that did not prevent them from participating in the philosophical discussions that the paper evoked.  One of the most interesting issues that emerged from the ensuing discussion focused on Shriver’s aim “to show not only that genetically engineering livestock will produce a world with better consequences, but also that doing so will not introduce any new “wrongs” into the world that will be offensive to other ethical theories.”  Many in the group felt that the proposal did not meet this standard; indeed, it seems that any ethical theory besides a thoroughgoingly consequentialist one would be equipped to take exception to the modification of animal genomes for purely human purposes. After all, even if the consequences of the act are good, non-consequentialist ethics may flag it as objectionable for other reasons. While it may yet turn out to be the case that genetically engineering livestock will not introduce any net wrongs into the world (even by the lights of deontological ethics), Shriver’s stronger claim of no new wrongs whatsoever appears untenable in its current form.

Inevitably, the discussion turned on the implicit assumption that the status quo was being further supported by Shriver’s provocative suggestion.  Given estimates of the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet at considerably less than the current 6.5 billion persons, the legitimacy of offering up ethically acceptable ways to continue to support intensive agriculture was questioned by many.  Thus, while such a technological feat might assuage one’s guilt about the treatment of animals destined for human consumption, it does little to address the larger (meta) problems that overpopulation of the planet have and will continue to bring to our doorstep.

[Thanks to Roland Nadler for help with this post.]


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