Shriver argues that huge numbers of people are never going to be persuaded to stop eating meat. He also points out that the amount of meat eaten by each meat-eater is increasing. By some estimates (that I’ve seen), there are something like 25 billion animals killed per year for food, a large percentage living in factory farm conditions. If it can’t all be stopped, shouldn’t we at least alleviate all the suffering we can? Shriver thinks that we should replace the animals now being used in factory farming with “knock out” animals--animals genetically engineered to suffer no pain, but still engage in normal pain behaviors, if indeed it proves technically feasible to create them.
Yesterday I argued that knock-out animals may not have all the suffering knocked out of them. There are reasons to think they wouldn’t mind pain as much, but they would still feel some pain. That doesn’t mean Shriver’s whole idea is wrongheaded (less pain is surely better than more pain). But it adds weight to a worry Shriver acknowledges in the article: “negative affect knockouts could encourage people to be more careless or cruel in their interactions with the animals.” That bothers him because knocking out pain won’t get rid of other negative emotions, like fear, depression, anxiety, and the like. I would just say the worry ought to be greater. We ought to retain a worry about the extra-rough handling causing pain-suffering, even if the new-fangled animals are lacking advanced cognitive and emotional perceptions of their pain. Even if animal personnel can be taught that the new livestock feel less pain, not no pain, this belief is bound to be disinhibiting.
And then there are more things to worry about. If Temple Grandin is right that certain kinds of pain-reducing neurosurgery cause unusual, erratic behavior (remember the chronic pain patients who shriek because of a pin prick), cattle might react with fear to their own altered behavior, or to the altered behavior of other animals. So…there’s a lot to worry about.
I suspect my response so far has a slight aroma of being less than honest. Judging from the initial comments to my first post, and the general reaction reported in the New Scientist article, not many people like the idea of knock out animals. They just find it really yucky. You might be suspecting I find it yucky too, and I’m just covering up with arguments that look more coldly rational. Perhaps I’m sticking to issues about consequences of knocking out pain, when really it isn’t consequences that are bothering me.
I confess. I do find the whole thing yucky. But I think there’s a coherent thought behind that reaction. Let’s set aside all the issues about consequences. Assume that you really can genetically engineer animals that are pain-free and behaviorally normal, and that people would not handle them any more roughly than existing livestock. Is there any justification for finding this option repellent?
The proposal to engineer pain-free animals clearly comes from compassion. The problem is that it conflicts with respect. It’s disrespectful because it takes us even further in the direction of treating animals as things, not as autonomous creatures. We have already gone a staggering distance in that direction. We’ve got animals crammed into stalls and cages with barely enough room to move…at all…ever. We’ve made them into “meat machines,” to use Ruth Harrison’s perfect phrase. By tinkering with their brains so that they have less pain, we’d be making them even more machine-like. We’d erode what “resistance” is left in them. As it is, they kick, howl, writhe, moan. They ask to be left alone. Partially decerebrated pain-free animals would be just putty in our hands.
And yet. And yet. Shriver is right that a huge number of people are not going to be persuaded to stop eating meat. If factory farming can’t all be stopped, shouldn’t we at least alleviate some of the suffering? Shouldn’t we go ahead and take the last couple of steps and make livestock more comfortable, if it’s technically possible (even if it’s disrespectful and yucky? When intense pain is at issue, doesn’t disrespect have to take a back seat?
Maybe so. If we really had no other options but continuing in the same direction and continuing, but with less pain for animals, I suppose I’d be forced to choose less pain. But I’d much rather see better conditions given to animals. Their environment should change to suit their needs, instead of them being altered to suit the environment they’re in right now. Even if the two approaches have the same net effect on happiness, we ought to choose the more respectful of the two.
Instead of engineering zombie animals, I’d rather see scientific effort put into the artificial meat that’s being explored in labs, with the support of animal rights organizations. This is a much better option from many angles, including the environmental angle. It would take far fewer resources to grow flesh than to maintain a living, breathing animal (with a life that’s not worth living). That’s another development people find yucky, but I suspect we can get over that. What’s really seriously yucky is the direction we’re heading in today.
NOTE: When this series was first posted a great discussion ensued. Sadly, I screwed up and deleted the series when I added new labels to it. I've reconstituted it from the original files, but the comments are forever lost. :-(