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Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality has Stalled?

Abstract

Though the vegetarian movement sparked by Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation has achieved some success, there is more animal suffering caused today due to factory farming than there was when the book was originally written. In this paper, I argue that there may be a technological solution to the problem of animal suffering in intensive factory farming operations. In particular, I suggest that recent research indicates that we may be very close to, if not already at, the point where we can genetically engineer factory-farmed livestock with a reduced or completely eliminated capacity to suffer. In as much as animal suffering is the principal concern that motivates the animal welfare movement, this development should be of central interest to its adherents. Moreover, I will argue that all people concerned with animal welfare should agree that we ought to replace the animals currently used in factory farming with animals whose ability to suffer is diminished if we are able to do so.

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Notes

  1. Singer did often talk of “animal rights” in Animal Liberation, but as a utilitarian he is in fact committed to a position that is opposed to the existence of rights as they are commonly construed in ethics. He explicitly states this position in Practical Ethics [6].

  2. Though this is one way of interpreting the implications of the principle of equal consideration of interests, it is by no means the only way (as Singer recognizes). Kantian theories and strict animal rights theories can also endorse the principle. As David Degrazia writes, “when seen from the proper perspective, utilitarianism and animal-rights views appear far more alike than different. Crucially, both extend to animals a principle of equal consideration. Any such principle requires that we (in some significant way) give equal moral weight to comparable interests, regardless of who has those interests” ([8] p. 112, emphasis in original).

  3. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I include this quote.

  4. There is fMRI data that shows anterior cingulate involvement in other cognitive operations such as attention shifting and error-detection. Some have suggested that activation of the anterior cingulate during pain may merely be a result of these other operations. However, considering that the relationship between the anterior cingulate and the affective dimension of pain has been established using not only fMRI studies, but also lesion studies [14], single-cell recordings in humans that identified nociceptive-specific neurons [19], and behavioral responses to the localized injection of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters [20], this suggestion is not very convincing without further support. At the very least, some story is owed by proponents of such a view about why people with lesions to the anterior cingulate report that they still feel pain but no longer mind it as much, as well as an explanation of why their story is not compatible with a view that the anterior cingulate plays a crucial role in the affective dimension of pain.

  5. Of course, the true degree of similarity of the role played by P311 in all mammals could only be fully determined through extensive empirical investigation. However, it would be relatively straightforward to test for the presence of P311 in other species and, if it were present, to subsequently develop P311 knockouts, given the sophistication of current molecular neuroscience practices. The main unknown would be whether the gene knockout would have similar effects in a different species, as there is at least some evidence that knockouts on “lower” animals don’t always translate to similar effects on more complex species. This is also complicated by the fact that the gestation period is much longer for the relevant mammals compared to rats.

  6. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to address these possibilities here, but I do note that any full consideration of the consequences would need to take their potential implications very seriously.

  7. California’s voters recently voted in favor of increasing the space for chickens in egg-laying operations. This certainly is a promising development from an animal welfare standpoint, and perhaps a model that can be used to impact suffering more effectively than past efforts. However, one of the arguments used by egg producers was that this would drive up costs to the point where California egg producers could no longer compete with those from other states. It remains to be seen how willing people will be to pay more money as long as cheaper, factory-farmed options are available.

  8. A somewhat related argument against my proposal would be to suggest that we grow all of our meat in culture as an alternative to factory farming. In fact, PETA has offered a million dollars to the first person who can create in vitro meat and bring it to market. It seems to me that in vitro meat would be preferable to pain affect knockouts because it would eliminate any uncertainty about whether suffering was taking place; however, it is not clear just how close we are to being able to actually grow meat in culture.

  9. I’d like to thank Gary Varner and Clare Palmer for helpful comments. And special thanks to an anonymous reviewer for extremely insightful comments.

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Shriver, A. Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality has Stalled?. Neuroethics 2, 115–124 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-009-9048-6

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Keywords

  • Nonhuman animals
  • Animal neuroethics
  • Genetic engineering
  • Pain
  • Suffering
  • Bioethics