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Anaesthe-steak™: pain-free meat and the welfare paradox

A recent article in the New Scientist raises the prospect that alongside ‘gluten-free’, ‘GM free’, ‘sugar free’, and ‘dairy free’ our supermarket shelves may soon contain ‘pain-free’ meat. American philosopher Adam Shriver, writing in Neuroethics, argues that everyone concerned with animal welfare should support the replacement of animals used in factory farming with livestock genetically modified to have reduced sensitivity to pain. (See here and here for blogs discussing Shriver's suggestion). However, many find the idea of developing ‘pain knockout’ animals disquieting or frankly disturbing. In a survey of attitudes towards the development of pain-free animals (for laboratory experimentation) vegetarians and members of the animal protection community were strongly opposed to such an idea. The strongest opposition to the development of pain-free animals may, paradoxically, come from those who have traditionally been most concerned about animal suffering.

Although the idea may seem far-fetched, in his Neuroethics paper Adam Shriver summarises a number of research articles, and suggests that the point where we are able breed livestock with reduced sensitivity to pain may not be far off. For example, scientists have already developed mice lacking genes that appear to play a crucial role in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that is involved in the affective component (ie the unpleasantness) of pain. Mice lacking these genes appear to sense painful stimuli, but do not try to actively avoid such stimuli in the way that normal mice do.

There are two main arguments that animal welfare advocates are likely to have for not supporting the development of ‘pain-free’ animals. The first is a scepticism about whether such animals would suffer less than current livestock. It is notoriously difficult to assess the subjective experience of other individuals, particularly those who are not able to communicate. It is unlikely, even if pain sensitivity can be reduced, that it will be completely eliminated in animals. Moreover it seems unlikely that single gene knockouts will ablate other (non-pain) negative sensations in animals such as fear, anxiety or depression. Life for intensively farmed animals such as veal calves or battery hens may still be extremely unpleasant, if not worse than death for the animal. What is more, there is the distinct possibility that if animals are believed to be insensitive to pain, that far less attention will be paid to their wellbeing. But even if animals continue to suffer as part of farming it seems likely that overall animal suffering would be reduced by such genetic modification. Animal welfare advocates should support it.

The second major argument is that modifying animals to reduce their sensitivity to the pain involved in intensive farming seems like “the wrong answer”. Intuitively, such a response appears to be tackling the question the wrong way. If we recognise that we are doing something to cause animals to suffer (for the trivial reason that it satisfies our gustatory preference), then surely the appropriate response is to stop eating meat, or at least to stop farming animals intensively. Modifying animals in order to make them insensitive to the nasty things that we do to them feels like a perverse response to animal suffering. But our intuition about the wrongness of painless intensive farming may not be reliable. It is not wrong to torture a rock, nor would it be wrong to torture an anaesthetised animal (the very word torture is meaningless in such a context). It is hard to imagine an animal that is genuinely unable to feel pain, or unconcerned by its experience. But if such an animal were created, it would not be wrong to do to that animal things that would ordinarily cause pain, but that do not, in fact, distress the animal at all.

Shriver’s argument is fundamentally pragmatic, and hard for those concerned about animal welfare to avoid. There are a range of reasons to oppose intensive farming. The best scenario would be if our meat eating were drastically reduced and intensive farming stopped. But given that intensive farming continues despite the best efforts of animal welfare advocates to curtail it, and doesn’t seem about to stop anytime soon, surely it would be better for the animals involved to suffer less?

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Some time ago I blogged about how to produce foie gras in a more ethical way:

    My idea was to genetically modify or breed geese who desired to gorge themselves to the extent that they developed the necessary liver changes. This would remove the force feeding aspect of the dish, and since the geese don’t live long enough to suffer from their livers (I presume). In theory one could even imagine geese that enjoyed the eating. This would – assuming continued foie gras consumption – be a better situation for everybody.

  2. Anders,


    one difference between your suggestion and the pain-free meat one is tthat this would not so much take away an aversive sensation in animals, rather it would add in potential pleasure from features of their handling – in this case the overeating.

    That might make a difference to people’s intuitions about animal modification.

    But one of the epistemic difficulties with altering animals in order to modify their response to things is that it is difficult to differentiate insensitivity from stoicism. With the Prader Willi geese it would be difficult to know whether the geese gained pleasure from overeating grain (to the point of developing a pathologically fatty liver), or whether they were merely compulsively driven to eat. In the case of humans with PWS it is not usually the case (as I understand) that they gain great pleasure from eating – rather they find it extremely hard to resist the urge to eat. How would we know whether the geese’s experience is significantly better for being internally (rather than externally) driven to morbid obesity?

    There is a more reliable way of improving the geese’s experience – but that involves us changing our dietary preferences


  3. This is a very interesting issue, and thank you for this analysis. However, I fear that you have been slightly too quick to dismiss the ‘moving the goalposts’ argument against pain-free meat on pragmatic grounds. My first thought was that I wonder whether the Geneva Convention permits torturing people under aneasthetic – is this really how people understand the concept of torturing? But to go further, is it actually unreasonable to be suspicious of moves to alter sentient beings for our own purposes? If there were a quick and painless operation which caused people to (apparently) enjoy being treated as slaves, would it be acceptable to perform this operation on people to create a slave population? There might be initial objections – distress to families for example – but these could, at least in theory, be worked around. Is the intuition that this would not be acceptable also wrong?

    I also think that there is a further case against this approach due to the societal attitudes that it is likely to engender – a desensitisation to the issue of animal suffering and an assumption that we can avert negative effects of our behaviour by changing causality rather than the behaviour. Conceivably both may appropriate in this case, but I would be concerned that this might encourage them to be mis-applied.

  4. Thanks David,

    quote “is it actually unreasonable to be suspicious of moves to alter sentient beings for our own purposes?”

    as Shriver points out, the difficulty that the opponent of pain-less meat has is that sentient beings are already modified regularly for our own purposes. The animals used in intensive farming have been bred specifically for a variety of characteristics, none of which are to their benefit. The question is why is this proposed modification more wrong than what already takes place. It may be argued that both are wrong since they are unnatural, or both are wrong since they treat animals as mere means. But given that animals continue to be bred, raised and slaughtered intensively why would it be more wrong for them to be less sensitive to pain?

    I didn’t suggest in my post that I had listed all of the objections to pain-free meat.
    The ‘happy slave’ example is a type of slippery slope objection that has been raised to it. But it doesn’t work terribly well. Although Shriver doesn’t use the term, pain-free animals would be a Pareto improvement. (This term comes from economics, and is the idea that if an alternative is worse for noone and better for at least some, it should rationally be preferred)

    In this case the simple idea is that the pain-insensitive animals are better off for experiencing less pain than they otherwise would, and that noone is worse off.

    The same could not be said of breeding happy human slaves. Unless they lacked the capacity for autonomous desires and preferences, self-determination etc their interests would be frustrated by working as slaves, even if they were happy doing so. They would be worse off than existing sweatshop workers in important ways. It would also involve selective breeding/genetic engineering of humans which at present does not occur (whereas for good or bad it does already occur for animals).

    quote “I also think that there is a further case against this approach due to the societal attitudes that it is likely to engender – a desensitisation to the issue of animal suffering”

    David, you point to the changes in humans that might result from the move to pain-free meat. I noted above the possibility that animals would be treated worse because they were believed insensitive to pain. If they actually retained some pain sensitivity they might end up suffering more, or they might end up suffering from other things such as fear, anxiety etc. Alternatively you might be suggesting that humans will end up treating non-pain-insensitive animals worse – for example wild animals, or pets. That would clearly be a problem for this proposal, but one that would not necessarily occur, and one that could be prevented with appropriate education. The third possibility is that this would lead to a change in human attitudes towards alleviating suffering more generally, and promote the idea that instead of treating others better we might simply modify them to not care. This returns in part to the happy slave argument above. But it also takes us back to the central question, it might be best to stop doing bad things to sentient beings that cause them to suffer. But if we are going to continue to do those things to the animals, surely it would be better (as a compromise) if they suffered less?


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