Can science help us resolve our ethical dilemmas? (Let us forget all the dilemmas that it creates... for the moment.) According to a recent New York Times op-ed by Adam Shriver, the answer would appear to be “yes.” Scientists have been able to isolate the gene for a peptide critical to the functioning of the anterior cingulate gyrus (where the mammalian brain perceives pain) in mice. As Shriver explains, if the functioning of the anterior cingulate gyrus is affected, the brain can still perceive pain, but it no longer translates the feeling of pain into something unpleasant. Given our successful track record in the genetic modification of animals, it seems inevitable that scientists will eventually be able to genetically engineer mammals – say, pigs or cows – without the ability to perceive the unpleasantness associated with pain. Should this happen, it would seem that science will have gone a long way toward resolving the thorny ethical issues surrounding the pain and suffering that animals endure on their journey to our dinner tables (particularly when they are produced in factory farms or confined animal feeding operations, CAFOs). So, is it possible that in the next few years places like Whole Foods will be offering grass-fed, omega-3 enriched, pain-free ground beef? Better yet, the Happy Animal Happy Meal at McDonald’s? Perhaps.
I must admit, when I first read of this line of research, I thought, finally, I can enjoy a bacon-wrapped hot dog without being wracked by guilt (or at least only guilt regarding my own health, but that’s a guilty pleasure). However, before we jump to the conclusion that vegetarianism is dead or that we no longer need to modify “omnivorism” with “conscientious,” let me offer a few thoughts, some of which I hope will speak to the larger relationship between science and ethical dilemmas.
First, even if animals can no longer feel the pain that they endure, can they still suffer? Would it be morally excusable then to “dock” pigs’ tails or confine calves for veal production? Do these practices become humane now that the animals cannot feel pain? These issues, largely related to animal welfare, seem to remain unresolved with the development of pain-free meat. What of the other concerns associated with factory farms? How will the practices of producing animals change when they are pain-free? Will there be a need for animal welfare laws? With animals pain-free, a limit to production efficiency would be lifted. Pigs and cows and chickens would be able to be packed together more tightly and slaughtered with greater speed. How will this affect the quality of meat products, human health, environmental conditions and emerging concerns over antibiotic-resistant bacteria and superbugs from factory farms? What of the workers? Will knowing that the animals are slaughtered without the unpleasantness associated with pain in some way address serious concerns over working conditions in factory farms?
These questions are not answered by our ability to affect or direct the functioning of the anterior cingulated gyrus. Shriver, in an article in Neuroscience (and discussed in the New Scientist), sees this not as a solution to factory farming but as a way to avoid animal suffering associated with the practices involved in factory farming. While he concedes that factory farming practices leave much to be desired, he is arguing that the ability to raise livestock without pain may absolve these farms of what many see as their ethical wrongdoings. This may or may not come to be the case. Clearly, other ethical issues remain. In fact, it seems as if the science ends up raising as many (ethical) questions as it answers. This is something, perhaps a principle of sorts, that we should be mindful of as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other areas of research pushing the frontiers of modern science and technology ever forward become increasingly present in our lives. We cannot and should not expect science and technology to solve the ethical issues that we, often with the use of science and technology, have created. Only through the painful process of politics can we hope to resolve these issues and find the areas in which science and technology may be effectively applied to help us grapple with such concerns. Or perhaps we can just wait for petri-dish raised beef to finally absolve us of our guilt from eating animals (but would it?).
About the Author: Thad Miller is a doctoral candidate at ASU’s School of Sustainability and an NSF IGERT in Urban Ecology Fellow. He currently is writing his dissertation on the emerging research agendas for sustainability science.