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Progress or cop-out? March 26, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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A recent op-ed in the NY Times applauded (albeit grudgingly) the development of techniques to genetically engineer animals who do not feel pain. Cutting-edge research has found a way to breed rats and mice who withdraw from painful stimuli (like hot floors) but don’t exhibit the pain response normally associated with such withdrawal. Conclusion: they are somehow experiencing the pain without it making them feel bad. If these techniques could be applied to cattle, pigs, and chickens, what a boon to the livestock industry! Then those pesky animal welfare activists wouldn’t have anything to complain about when cattle are castrated, dehorned, and branded without anesthetic, or when chickens are debeaked, or when any number of animals are left to languish with broken bones weeks before slaughter.

Well, as several replies to the op-ed demonstrated, lots of people are outraged that we humans would try to stop cruelty to farm animals not by changing our cruel practices but by inuring animals to the results. There seems to be something wrong with blithely continuing along our self-serving paths, trampling the animals along the way, and fixing things on the back-end by making sure they don’t notice. Shouldn’t we focus our “fixing-power” on the wrongdoers, not the victims? As one levelheaded letter-writer said, “Given that our current system for producing meat inflicts pain on animals, the sensible response is to change the system, not the animals.” A more amusing response: “I’d like to propose an alternative: that we consider using neuroscience and genetic engineering to modify humans so that they derive less pleasure from consuming large amounts of animal flesh and more pleasure from consuming things like tofu.”

This debate reminds me of a similar one that pops up now and again in discussions of global warming. Most people who think that global warming is real and harmful think we should devote our energies to scaling down the industrial complex that’s causing it. Consume less stuff, drive and fly less, eat less meat. Maybe, on the positive side, plant a few trees to combat the deforestation that’s one big culprit. But there is a minority who think we should devote some energy to building huge artificial carbon sinks – I always imagine big spaceships that cruise the skies gobbling carbon – so that even if we continue business as usual here on the ground, the warming that results will be reduced. Outcry: how can it be OK to continue business as usual when that’s what got us into this mess in the first place?

But in the global warming debate as well as in the animal welfare debate, none of the outraged public has really put their finger on why it’s wrong to solve our problems by fixing things on the back-end. If what makes cruelty to animals wrong is that the animals suffer from it, why isn’t any solution that eliminates that suffering equally worthy? If what makes global warming bad is rising temperatures and the havoc they may wreak, why isn’t any solution that keeps the temperature down equally acceptable? Perhaps not all solutions are created equal because not all solutions satisfy our desire to punish the perpetrators of the problems, but that desire seems more of an instinctual craving than a rational basis for choosing one solution over others. I’d have to conclude that as distasteful as these back-end solutions are, they are morally acceptable.

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Comments»

1. Eric C - March 26, 2010

Agreed. Though I also like the snarky comment about genetically engineering people to love tofu (more than we love meat). It wouldn’t even have to involve decreasing our taste for meat; rather, we just increase our taste for tofu.

Also, there’s a great episode of Futurama wherein society’s solution to global warming is to get a huge chunk of ice from an asteroid every now and then and drop it into the ocean (special guest star Al Gore).


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