Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: If one is genuinely concerned with the welfare of non-human animals, should one seriously consider the disenhancement of intensively-farmed livestock as a possible method of reducing animal suffering? by Catrin Gibson

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Catrin Gibson, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

If one is genuinely concerned with the welfare of non-human animals, should one seriously consider the disenhancement of intensively-farmed livestock as a possible method of reducing animal suffering?

It is generally agreed that suffering is bad. However, a countless number of non-human animals each year undergo tremendous suffering in order to meet the human demand for animal products, and this demand is currently increasing. The Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that meat consumption will rise from 37.4kg per person worldwide (1999/2001) to 52 kg per person worldwide by 2050. The recent development of ‘intensive’ or ‘factory’ farming has greatly increased productivity, so it is likely that there will be an increase in the proportion of factory-farmed animal products to meet this demand. In factory farms, large numbers of livestock are kept indoors in relatively small spaces and suffer from horrific production diseases as a result. These are pathologies that occur due to the methods of livestock production; for example, chickens kept in large numbers have a tendency to cannibalism. Therefore, it is likely that there will be a significant increase in animal suffering in the near future.

The solution most often advocated by those who are concerned with the welfare of animals is that people should stop eating factory-farmed animal products. However, these campaigns have had limited success compared to the trend of growth in meat consumption. An alternative proposal is that livestock used in factory-farming could be genetically modified to reduce their capacities for sentience or suffering, known as ‘disenhancement’, thus decreasing the suffering felt by animals in factory-farms. In particular, the focus has been on what Thompson calls the ‘Dumb Down’ strategy: the genetic basis for a characteristic or ability is removed from an animal that would otherwise have it. A number of recent articles have argued that disenhancement ought to be seriously considered as a solution by animal welfare campaigners. In response, this essay will argue that disenhancement is not a strategy that someone genuinely concerned with animal welfare could accept, and thus it should not be considered seriously. Firstly, causing disability is intrinsically bad. Secondly, the sources of suffering participate in the badness of suffering. Thirdly, disenhancement reinforces a culture of exploitation.

Most arguments in favour of disenhancement do not argue that it ought to be implemented, but that the intuition that disenhancement is morally wrong cannot be justified by philosophical argument and that the main animal welfare theories have no objection to disenhancement. To evaluate the proposal of disenhancement, one must have a concrete idea of the technology that it would involve. Scientists have identified two dimensions of pain: sensory and affective. The sensory dimension of pain is its location, intensity and so on; the affective dimension is the phenomenological unpleasantness of the pain. Scientists have genetically engineered animals that lack the proteins for the affective dimension of chronic or persistent pain. Alternatively, scientists could create insentient ‘decerebrated’ animals.

It is argued that the leading theories of animal welfare have no objection in principle to disenhancement. Peter Singer argues that the interests of all those who would be affected by an action should be considered equally. This includes the interests of animals because they have future-directed preferences. Animals have an interest in avoiding suffering. If disenhancement reduces their capacity to feel pain, it ought to be seriously considered. Tom Regan argues that animals have rights in virtue of their having an internal life experience, and thus being ‘subjects-of-a-life’. Decerebrated animals no longer have an internal life experience, so they would no longer have rights that intensive farming could violate. Furthermore, people will not stop eating factory-farmed meat, so animals’ rights will be violated regardless of whether or not they are disenhanced. The choice is between rights violations and extensive suffering, or just rights violations. It seems that the rational deontologist must go for the latter.

There is no philosophical argument that supports the persistent intuition that disenhancement is wrong. An argument commonly given in support of the intuition is that genetic engineering violates the dignity or species-integrity of the animal, despite actual individual animals being made better off. However, Thompson persuasively argues that this objection commits a type/token fallacy. Actual animals will be benefitted as their actual suffering will be reduced; genetic engineering will not harm them. The appeal to dignity sounds pompous and irrelevant.

However, these arguments unconvincing. The proposal of disenhancement will be unacceptable to those who are genuinely concerned about animal welfare, therefore it should not be seriously considered as a possible method of reducing suffering.

Firstly, to remove an animal’s capability for sentience or to feel pain is to disable the animal. Disability is intrinsically bad because it reduces well-being, so causing disability is wrong independently of its consequences. Disability is not just contingently wrong because it makes the individual less adapted to her environment. Pain is a way of learning about one’s environment, as it teaches one what is harmful. Therefore, even though suffering is bad, the ability to suffer qua a form of perception could be good. Disenhancement deprives animals of the good of this faculty. In addition, disability permanently limits one’s options. Even if it is claimed that there are some goods that are unique to being disabled, the non-disabled can always choose to disable themselves. Furthermore, to reverse the direction of the argument, if disability was not intrinsically bad, it could be permissible to cause disability. However, it intuitively seems wrong for parents to screen their embryos and select a disabled one, even if conditions in society were changed to be more accommodating to the disabled. The child will still suffer being deprived of the goods of a certain ability and will be excluded from an ability shared by the majority of the species. Our objection is not just that the identity-constituting characteristics of an individual ought not to be interfered with, as we do not think it would be wrong to reverse a disability.

Secondly, the sources of suffering will still be present for disenhanced animals and the sources themselves contribute to the badness of suffering. In comparison, it is generally thought that happiness does not consist in the mere sensation of pleasure. An experience machine could generate all the experiences constitutive of happiness without the experienced events occurring in the real world, but a person in the experience machine would not be considered to be genuinely happy. John Stuart Mill recognised the importance of the sources of happiness, and is said to have held an ‘inclusive ends’ conception of happiness. The goals that humans pursue, such as knowledge and virtue, are not mere means to happiness but are part of the end of happiness itself.

However, suffering does appear to be different. We do not think that the person in the experience machine is genuinely happy, but if they experienced the sensations of pain we would say that they genuinely suffer. The sensation of pleasure alone is not a sufficient condition of happiness; the presence of the sources of happiness and the experience of pleasure are jointly necessary and sufficient conditions. The sources are good in themselves as parts of happiness. The sensation of pain is a sufficient and a necessary condition for suffering, but it could be the case that the sources of suffering in themselves are part of the badness of suffering, even if the sensation is absent. This could underlie the idea that disability, qua a cause of suffering, is intrinsically bad. Suppose there are Martians who do not feel pain and can regenerate their limbs. Their wilfully maiming each other and throwing each other under buses would still appear abhorrent to us, perhaps because it is disrespectful. There could be something bad about maiming, confining and isolation for conscious beings independent of whether they give rise to the sensation of suffering.

These points are illustrated by the case of humans with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA). Sufferers are able to feel pressure but not the sensation of pain. Patients often bite off their own tongues, scratch out their own eyes, and suffer from multiple fractures and ulcers. This does not cause them to feel the sensation of pain, but it seems justified to say that they suffer terribly. Their disability means they are unable to live a normal daily life and are deprived of the good of a source of knowledge about the world. Furthermore, their maimed and mutilated bodies seem somehow bad in themselves. This seems to suggest that the sources of suffering are also a sufficient condition for suffering, but only the experience of pain is a necessary condition. Shriver argues that disenhanced intensively-farmed livestock would be unable to harm themselves confined in their cages. But animals can injure themselves even in cages. Factory-farmed pigs are kept in cages with a narrow opening through which they reach their food. These pigs often suffer from bloodied and mangled snouts from trying to eat through these bars. Furthermore, if the gene knockouts did not relieve the suffering of boredom, stress and frustration, it seems that animals would still suffer even in better cages.

Finally, the tactic of trying to make the best of a bad situation conflicts with a genuine concern for animal welfare. Singer and Regan have been misinterpreted. Singer claims that we must regard sentience as intrinsically valuable, or at least accept that we prefer it to non-sentience due to our reproductive instincts, in order to maintain that a peopled universe is better that a non-sentient one. Animals share the same reproductive instincts. They too prefer sentience, so reducing the sentience of animals is contrary to their preferences, and thus likely unjustified on Singer’s preference utilitarianism. In contrast, Regan gives a Kantian theory of animal rights. Sentience is what makes a being morally relevant, so he would condemn making sentient animals insentient as using them as a means to an end.

To make sense of disenhancement, we must not view it as merely an action to reduce suffering, but as performed by agents in certain roles that aim at collective ends within an institution. Only then will we be able to fully make sense of disenhancement. One must ask why an agent in this role, the role of agricultural scientist or farmer, should pursue animal disenhancement. The answer is not simply to reduce animal suffering, but to increase profits whilst minimising criticism. If one is genuinely concerned with animal welfare, this reason will not justify disenhancement.

If one views disenhancement as part of a social institution, it becomes apparent that it is not just suffering that makes factory-farming wrong, but that it is part of a culture of human exploitation of animals. Animals should be viewed holistically as individuals with basic interests in living and being free, not just in avoiding suffering. Disenhancement is unacceptable as animals still lack fundamental rights and are bred, kept and killed for human ends. To view disenhancement from a genuinely anti-speciesist perspective, we must consider whether we would endorse medical experiments on decerebrated humans. If we find this abhorrent, and species is morally irrelevant, then disenhancement is also abhorrent. Disenhancement manifests the mentality of exploitation which has led to animal suffering in the first place. The right thing to do is to break away from this kind of thinking altogether.

In conclusion, if one is genuinely concerned with the welfare of animals, the disenhancement of intensively-farmed livestock is an unacceptable proposal and should not be considered seriously. Disenhancement inflicts a disability on the animal and disability is intrinsically bad. The sources of suffering would remain for the animals and these are part of the badness of suffering. Furthermore, disenhancement would be another manifestation of the culture of exploitation that has led to animal suffering. If one is genuinely concerned with animal welfare, one ought to advocate changing the conditions of factory-farming to better suit the animals, rather than changing the animals to better suit their conditions.

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