Color Me Terrified

February 20, 2010

The New York Times has an Op-Ed today on cows genetically-modified to experience less suffering.

We are most likely stuck with factory farms, given that they produce most of the beef and pork Americans consume. But it is still possible to reduce the animals’ discomfort — through neuroscience. Recent advances suggest it may soon be possible to genetically engineer livestock so that they suffer much less.

Among the many things that such an innovation suggests to me, it also strikes me as at least one counter-example to Singer’s argument. The way I see it, massive factory farms present a significant ethical problem even if the animals are modified in such a way that they stand mindlessly penned in their quarters, oblivious to their impending fate. It’s not the pain that’s doing the work, it’s what we do that matters.


  1. I think this is generalizable to all environmental ethics. The state of the world (nature) is not what really matters, it’s how we live in/with it. Oh, virtue ethics, you are so wonderful…… See a piece I published in your journal before you ran it: http://people.clemson.edu/~athomp6/web/research_files/EPE%20Do%26Allow.pdf

  2. Bah. What kind of inconsistent crack are you smoking, man? Environmental virtue ethics of the kind you advocate also falls under environmental ethics of the generalized sort. How we live in/with nature is only part of the picture, no matter how much McDowell may wave his hands otherwise.

    (It’s still a good essay, though.)

  3. Bah?! I was agreeing with you and illustrating as much by reference to a paper where I work out an environmentalist argument against consequentialism in more detail. One needn’t be a virtue theorist to think utilitarian views miss something important re: our relations with the non-human world. I can’t make sense of your reply and, anyway, I don’t smoke *crack! (smiles)

  4. Great to check out your blog, Ben, as well as to meet you the other day over some tasty Thai food!

    Of course, this post brings to mind the following lines from Douglas Adam’s “Restaurant at the End of Universe”. Not only did Adams anticipate the technical development (and then some), he offers a pithy summary of the pertinent ethical issues:

    “A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox’s table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

    “Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

    Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

    “Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal, “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

    “Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

    “But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”

    Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal’s shoulder appreciatively.

    “Or the rump is very good,” murmured the animal. “I’ve been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there’s a lot of good meat there.” It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

    “Or a casserole of me perhaps?” it added.

    “You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

    “Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes, “I don’t mean anything.”

    “That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

    “What’s the problem Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

    “I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing here inviting me to,” said Arthur, “it’s heartless.”

    “Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

    “That’s not the point,” Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. “Alright,” he said, “maybe it is the point. I don’t care, I’m not going to think about it now. I’ll just … er …”

    The Universe raged about him in its death throes.

    “I think I’ll just have a green salad,” he muttered.

    “May I urge you to consider my liver?” asked the animal, “it must be very rich and tender by now, I’ve been force-feeding myself for months.”

    “A green salad,” said Arthur emphatically.

    “A green salad?” said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

    “Are you going to tell me,” said Arthur, “that I shouldn’t have green salad?”

    “Well,” said the animal, “I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

    It managed a very slight bow.

    “Glass of water please,” said Arthur.

    “Look,” said Zaphod, “we want to eat, we don’t want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare steaks please, and hurry. We haven’t eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years.”

    The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle.

    “A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good,” it said, “I’ll just nip off and shoot myself.”

    He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur.

    “Don’t worry, sir,” he said, “I’ll be very humane.”

    It waddled unhurriedly off into the kitchen.

    A matter of minutes later the waiter arrived with four huge steaming steaks. Zaphod and Ford wolfed straight into them without a second’s hesitation. Trillian paused, then shrugged and started into hers.

    Arthur stared at his feeling slightly ill.

    “Hey, Earthman,” said Zaphod with a malicious grin on the face that wasn’t stuffing itself, “what’s eating you?”

    And the band played on.

  5. If you follow this to its logical end, you will end up with vat grown meat. Just the meat – no brain or other organs.

    No brain – no ethical issues?

    Are there are ethical issues with that?

    Personally, I like steak – so it seems to me that moving in the direction of vat grown meat is more ethical than farm grown meat.

  6. Following Ben’s suggestion above, one thing to consider would be: how do we have to live in the world – how to we have to engage it – to get to the point where it’s safe to grow and eat vat meat (if it ever is)? Especially to get to the point where we grow vat meat to the extent where all the cows are . . . cut loose?

    Seems that the current issue is one of how we engage our environment and other species, and the proposal that we engage it through technological/genetic manipulation seems to me, in this case, to raise more questions than it answers.

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