Thanks to mizm of the fine blog Left at the Altar for alerting me to this paper by Adam Shriver that makes a case for replacing factory farmed animals with animals genetically engineered to feel less pain. The author cites recent research that seems to show that it’s possible to eliminate, or at least reduce, animals’ capacity for suffering and goes on to argue that, on consequentialist grounds, this could provide a certain technological fix to the moral problem of factory farming.
I have two problems with this piece, a somewhat superficial one and a deeper one. First, even if it is possible to reduce or eliminate the unpleasant sensations associated with pain, there’s still the issue of how factory farming frustrates animals’ natural tendencies toward certain behaviors. A pig wants to get up and move around, and a hen wants to stretch her wings. This is true even if they aren’t in pain per se. Not to mention the various social and other behaviors that are proper to these creatures but which the confined conditions of factory farming prevent them from engaging in. Even if we could genetically engineer away pain, is it possible to engineer away the frustration, boredom, and fear that these animals undoubtedly also experience?
Suppose it is possible, though–is it desirable? This brings me to my more fundamental objection. Even if such a thing was technically feasible, would it be right to engineer animals with such radically different natures that they no longer even wanted to express the patterns of behavior proper to their kind? Granted, we can’t necessarily see natural kinds in quite the same ways that our pre-Darwinian ancestors might have, but isn’t there something monstrous about the prospect of fashioning such unnatural beings? Is our gluttony for flesh so insatiable that there’s no length we won’t go to in order to satisfy it?
In fairness to Shriver, he seems to be an animal advocate, and his argument is motivated in part by a deep pessimism that moral argument will persuade large numbers of people to boycott the products of factory farms. Replacing existing farm animals with ones incapable of suffering is, for him, a second-best option. I’m not sure I share his pessimism, but even if I did, there are some things that we shouldn’t do even if they seem to promise the best available utilitarian outcome. The kind of engineering he envisions would, it seems to me, be the ultimate reduction of animals to commodity status–it would be an explicit affirmation that they are entirely material to be manipulated for our use, rather than creatures with an independent dignity and worth. The result might well turn out to be a case of winning the battle only to lose the war: a society with such a wholly instrumentalist view of non-human life is not likely to learn to restrain itself from running roughshod over creation whenever it feels like it. Is that the kind of society we want? And is it one that can last?