Animals Without Pain, Humans Without Conscience?
It’s an idea that we saw and heard floated last year: animals “engineered” not to feel pain. And yesterday, Adam Shriver of Washington University, of my own city of St. Louis, explored in the New York Times his solution to the physical suffering we impose on farmed animals; he plainly states that we are “stuck with factory farms, given that they produce most of the beef and pork Americans consume,” and thus, his solution is apparently some kind of necessary, moral, noble one (and for this article, my hat tips once again to my expert link-providing friend on Twitter).
I’m left wondering whether they teach critical thinking in that doctoral “philosophy-neuroscience-psychology” program in which Mr. Shriver is enrolled, while hoping that people in the general public see the wrongness of this and stop to consider whether, if this is where we’ve finally arrived, they’re really willing to go this far to continue doing something that already contradicts the values that most hold deep down.
First, let’s just look at what Shriver and those in his camp are advocating — that we damage animals’ brains, so that we can damage the rest of their bodies with less guilt, so that we can continue treating them like inanimate objects rather than, oh, I don’t know, rethink what despicable things we’re doing in the first place. The idea that the solution to treating them as objects is to treat them even more like objects (and experiment on who-knows-how-many animals to achieve this non-solution) boggles the mind.
When Shriver published these thoughts in Neuroethics last year, Marji responded at the Animal Place blog, and Philosophia and Animal Liberation crafted a thoughtful response as well, so I recommend visits there. [Edit: Unbeknownst to either one of us, Mary and I were writing on this topic at the same time this morning; check out her post at Animal Person as well.] Both are smart, thoughtful posts with excellent points about what eliminating animals’ ability to sense their own pain would do and not do, including in the “not” column eliminate their ability to suffer in general. We human animals know well that some of the worst suffering we experience can sometimes be not related to physical injury and pain at all — and we human animals know well that a great deal of the suffering we impose on our fellow animals is also outside the realm of physical pain. Oh yes, the physical pain we cause them is massive, but the mental and emotional anguish we cause? Equally unimaginable. And were we to suddenly not have to worry (as if our society worries so much now) about their feeling the physical pain we’re causing them, I suspect the ways in which we cause them concurrent mental and emotional distress would only increase.
But put aside the discussion of what this horrid practice would and would not entail, and the very premise of Shriver’s argument is incredible. Self-serving and dishonest, it relies on an outright lie: that “we cannot avoid factory farms altogether.” I want to ask Mr. Shriver, “Are you serious?” But clearly he is. He’s been pushing this for a while. Yet surely someone who’s smart enough to work his way into a doctoral program knows that not only can we “avoid factory farms”; we can avoid animal farming altogether. We are not required as a society or as individuals to keep eating animals. And one of the remarkable aspects of Mr. Shriver’s so-called solution, among all the many proposals and justifications offered by people who want to continue eating animals, is that most other people at least pretend to care enough to call for a reduction in the consumption of animals. But Shriver is so ultimately uncritical of what humans are doing and so unwilling to suggest that we just take responsibility and live ethically that he’d rather insist, boldly and with utter dishonesty, that not only the eating of animals but even the intensive farming of animals is impossible to stop, and we should just embrace it and go to extraordinary scientific lengths to make sure we can keep doing it.
Apparently, the vastly simpler, kinder, more logical, and more economical solution — that if we want to be kinder to animals and not impose suffering on them, we stop eating them – is just too simple. It’s not the kind of simple solution that propels you into journals and the New York Times or that creates opportunities for loads of research money to come your way, I guess.
“The least we can do,” Shriver says, “is eliminate the unpleasantness of pain in the animals that must live and die on [farms]. It would be far better than doing nothing at all.” Talk about a false dichotomy. Our options are not limited to “change nothing; continue on the current path” and “cause brain damage to every one of the tens of billions of farmed animals in the nation.” The least we can do, Mr. Shriver, is first acknowledge that there is no “must” here and then behave as if we have a conscience and not cause them the “unpleasantness of pain” in the first place. The least we can do, if we believe in nonviolence and not killing and causing suffering for nothing more than our own pleasure, is not eat animals or what comes from them, not turn them into units of production, in the first place.
Shriver assures readers that “the people who consumed meat [and dairy and eggs, I presume?] from such genetically engineered livestock would also be safe.” Maybe their physical bodies would be safe. But moral integrity would have no chance of coming out of such a “solution” intact.
I refuse to believe that this is what we’ve come to, that we are so selfish a society that when faced with the horrors, crises, and injustices of our own making, we would devote ourselves to finding out how we can continue rather than how we can stop — that we would do this, that we would go this far, before simply living our values, before making a far more logical change. Animal agriculture is unsustainable (a problem not addressed at all by Shriver’s plan) and cruel and unjust. But we don’t need nauseating, elaborate schemes such as Shriver’s so that we can continue it. We just need to stop it.
Photo by Elias Bröms retrieved from Wikimedia Commons