Reducing Animal Pain Is Not Equivalent to Reducing Harm

An op-ed in today’s NYTimes addresses new advances in neuroscience that could reduce the pain experienced by intensively-farmed animals:

Neuroscientists have found that by damaging a laboratory rat’s anterior cingulate cortex, or by injecting the rat with morphine, they can likewise block its affective perception of pain. The rat reacts to a heated cage floor by withdrawing its paws, but it doesn’t bother avoiding the places in its cage where it has learned the floor is likely to be heated up.

Recently, scientists have learned to genetically engineer animals so that they lack certain proteins that are important to the operation of the anterior cingulate cortex. Prof. Min Zhuo and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, for example, have bred mice lacking enzymes that operate in affective pain pathways. When these mice encounter a painful stimulus, they withdraw their paws normally, but they do not become hypersensitive to a subsequent painful stimulus, as ordinary mice do.

Prof. Zhou-Feng Chen and his colleagues here at Washington University have engineered mice so that they lack the gene for a peptide associated with the anterior cingulate gyrus. Like the animals given brain lesions, these mice are normally sensitive to heat and mechanical pain, but they do not avoid situations where they experience such pain.

The editors argue that we are stuck with intensive farming and factory farms, but such technologies may reduce the unpleasantness of the lives of the animals destined to live and die for our consumption.

But to me, this totally misses the point. The harm caused by factory farming is not merely the fact that it causes animals physical pain but rather that the animals’ entire lives are degrading, exploitative, and contrary to nature. Locking a chicken in a cage so small it cannot move surely causes the animal displeasure, but not in a way directly related to physical pain. The chicken’s displeasure comes from the fact that it cannot move, has no exposure to the outdoors, and can’t do all the other things that chickens are supposed to do.

Obviously, its not a direct analogy, but imagine a human being in the same situation. If you were to confine a human being to a tiny closet, with no access to light an poor ventilation, stuffing him with food to fatten him up for an early slaughter, would the inhumanity of the act be lessened because you took away his ability to perceive pain? Of course not. If anything, it might increase the inhumanity of the imprisonment. Taking away the capacity to feel pain, the capacity to suffer physically due to an injustice, seems to me to be taking away something critical from humanity, and by extension, intensively-farmed animals.

Decreasing the amount of pain experienced by factory-farmed animals makes it that much easier to justify their exploitation. Most of us feel a twinge of empathy or concern when we hear about the suffering these animals experience. This empathy (or maybe guilt if you are a regular consumer of intensively-farmed meat) is a good thing. It indicates an injustice. The solution is not to reduce the pain consequent to the injustice, but to end the injustice itself.

It seems to me that underlying the editors’ argument is a utilitarian assumption, namely, that decreasing pain and suffering is equivalent to increasing happiness or utility. This is why utilitarians like Peter Singer justify infanticide of severely handicapped infants–surely, they reason, it is better for the infant to not exist at all rather than to exist in pain. The same reasoning is behind the widespread support of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Eudaimonistic ethics, on the other hand, virtue ethics included, views happiness much more comprehensively as flourishing. That is, happiness is living in the way in which God has ordained that you live. For chickens, this includes a long life out of doors, roaming and clucking and brooding and chasing grubs. Cows too are ordained to flourish by munching on grass, roaming the fields, and mooing with their friends in some mid-day shade. Pigs, perhaps the most intelligent of the bunch, flourish in a much more dynamic way than their domesticated companions in lives that include highly-developed social relationships, curiosity, and compassion (pigs are thought to be as intelligent, if not more so, than dogs).

These animals can achieve a eudaimonia suited to their constitution and the order of nature, but not under the conditions in which they find themselves in factory farms. Reducing their physical pain does nothing to address the fact that our exploitative farming techniques deny these animals their God-given telos, or purpose. These new neurotechnologies are just another way to continue exploiting animals to suit our desires, and specifically, the unrestrained appetite to eat meat with a clean conscience.

*Admittedly, I took a cheap jab at utilitarians and Peter Singer in a naive and simplistic way. My apologies in advance to Charlie Camosy and other utilitarians I am hoping to convert to a virtue-ethics frame of mind.


3 comments so far

  1. Katie O'Neill on


    I feel what you are saying…i.e. that the animals cannot reach their final cause. But factory farming of all sorts has lead to far fewer people starving to death. Because of the fact that factory farming exists in a capitalistic system, because it is the most efficient way to feed the most amount of people (the health of this can still be debated, but its efficiency cannot be) and because it has lead to fewer and fewer dying of starvation, it’s not going any where any time soon. The only way it could happen is if we had some kind of economic revolution and while that could happen I think it’s unlikely. Because I am one of the many that cringe at the suffering of the animals (sickened is more like it) and because I live in a system where this is the food I can afford to eat, I’m all for these animals suffering less if only in a physical sense.

    • everydaythomist on

      I don’t know if factory farming has led to fewer people starving to death. Remember, factory farming exploits human animals as well as non-human animals, and the individuals, largely migrant workers, who are forced by the capitalistic system to work on factory farms experience degrading, dehumanizing, and unhealthy working conditions with hardly any benefit. That is, the poorest are the ones working in factory farms, not necessarily buying the products, unless we are going to talk about the fast food industry. Nevertheless, the main cause, as I understand it, for less starvation globally is not factory farming but rather the farming of hybrid corn and rice which provides the main source of sustenance for those in the developing world and the poor in this country. I think the idea that factory farming has reduced starvation is a popular myth, perpetuated by the farming industry, in order to support our meat-consuming habits.

      The fact is, we eat way too much meat in this society, and the huge demand simply cannot be met in any sort of ethically-sustainable way. There are alternatives–beans, soy-based products–none of which are without some sort of exploitation (soy farmers in South America have horribly degrading working conditions), but at least they don’t cause the massive slaughter of millions of sentient beings a year.

      I should also say that I am not directly advocating for a vegetarian lifestyle. If anything, I am confused about how to eat in a way I can morally support. But I do think that factory farming is a grave evil, and I see this new neurotechnological development as simply another way the industry will try to convince us otherwise.

  2. Katie O'Neill on

    I guess I would say that in factory farming I am including all forms of modern farming (meat, wheat, corn, etc) and while it is true that evolutionary stronger forms of corn, etc contribute to fewer people starving to death, so do economically sound farms. And I’m not talking about working conditions (which are horrible) or health conditions of the food (which are also by many accounts not good) I’m only talking about the amount of people who starve to death and this has changed dramatically with economically fit farms. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, I’m saying it’s a practical reality given the economic conditions we live in. Therefore, if it is the most economically fit manner in which to produce food so that the most amount of people are fed (and I would argue by the way that more of those people need to be fed) then the trick is maybe not to overhaul the system all together but to find ways in which the system can become more ethically sound. The humane treatment of animals is a start, but the unionization of the workers would be another thing that needs to happen.

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