“Pain-Free Animals” – A Slope Too Slippery
Regular readers of this blog know that I am an advocate of in vitro meat and believe it holds the promise to dramatically reduce animal suffering by removing most farm animals from the equation. Another approach would seek to genetically alter animals to remove or limit their ability to experience pain. While laudable in its intent, however, this is a pretty frightening concept, in part because it suggests that animal suffering is only physical in nature, ignoring the mental anguish suffered by animals.
In a recent article in the journal Neuroethics, author Adam Shriver argues that humans are “close to the point where we can genetically engineer factory-farmed livestock with a reduced or completely eliminated capacity to suffer.” He goes on to say that anyone concerned with animal welfare should support this idea, but I’m not convinced. I believe it’s true that genetic engineering has the potential to reduce pain in farm animals, but at what cost? And who should we trust to measure an animal’s pain and suffering?
Last week I made the case that “humane meat” is an important interim step on the path to eliminating animal farming, even though it’s not truly humane. I suppose the same argument could be made for “pain-free” animals, but in my view it’s a much more slippery slope. The very concept of engineering an animal incapable of suffering is impossibly arrogant and presumes that we understand animals much better than we do. It would be far too easy to revert to the Cartesian perception of animals as machines and believe that we can simply remove a part and switch off the suffering. But of course animals are much more complex than this.
People have a poor understanding of what causes suffering in our fellow humans, let alone in non-human animals. The notion that we can eliminate suffering by toying with an animal’s genes is naïve at best and morally very dangerous at worst. The idea that we can somewhat reduce farm animal suffering through genetic engineering may have merit, but it’s still a very risky proposition for animals. Much more than creating standards for “humane” farming and slaughter, I think genetically engineering animals to reduce physical pain would be a mostly “feel-good” advancement that helps people rationalize animal slaughter.
In my opinion, in vitro meat is the more ethical alternative even though commercialization of such products may be decades away. Rather than changing the very nature and essence of animals to conform to our limited notion of “pain-free,” humans would be morally better off designing ways to remove sentient beings from the process entirely. While in vitro meat production currently involves some animal products, there is no concern that the meat itself will suffer. The same cannot be said for genetically altered animals, no matter how hard we try to remove their ability to feel pain.