Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pains in the Brain: On Liberating Animals from Feeling

Before I say anything about my year-plus hiatus on publishing here, let me just throw in a practical note. Due to a blitzkrieg of spam posts on this and other blogs I operate on Blogger, I have had to change the policy so that all posts must be moderated. But for all this obnoxious garbage coming my way I had no intention of preventing even the most ridiculous comments, so long as they were intended as contributions. But after spending time every day, for weeks in a row, logging in and deleting spam comments one by one I finally had no choice. Anyone who wishes to comment on this or any other post is strongly encouraged to do so. I still intend to publish every appropriate comment, regardless of how much I may disagree with it. The only exceptions I can think of would be extreme ad hominem attacks, racial insults, threats and the like. Please be aware that it may take me a little while to get notified of a comment and publish it. Thanks for your understanding.

So, as I was saying, here it is well over a year since I've published anything on this blog. Not that I haven't been thinking about it. Not that I haven't wished to throw my two cents in about this or that earthshaking advance in neurophilosophy. Not that I've been any less pissed off at watching the philosophers of mind, and many others, become shameless sycophants of neurobiologists, philosophical thought pander to laboratory experiments, and philosophical nihilism creep in on the hind paws of physicalism. It's just that I've spent a lot of my energy doing other things. Did you know, for example, that there are certain fields in which it is actually the practice to pay authors for the articles they publish? Yes, this unusual ritual prevails, for example, in fiction, essay, and many other kinds of writing. Imagine: you receive a letter from the Philosophical Review in which you are not only told that your essay has been accepted, but that you will receive actual money for the two years of hard work it took you to write the piece. Incredible, I know, but outside the beknighted realm of purely theoretical academic discourse, it's the norm. I mean, thanks for the Socratic tradition of offering your words of wisdom for nothing, in contrast to those shallow, relativistic Sophists; but just the same, if my essay is worth publishing, it's worth paying for.

Indeed, I suspect that the author of the piece that has drawn me back to this blog for a moment, was not too badly compensated for filling a small part of the New York Times Op-Ed page. And I not only do not have a problem with that, as you may have figured out - I actually applaud the author for obtaining (I presume) an honorarium for the service of providing a philosophical perspective to the readers of the Times. For the author, Adam Shriver, identifies himself as "a doctoral student in the philosophy-neuroscience-psychology program at Washington University". The fact that being a philosopher these days means being able to attach "neuroscience" to your discipline, title, major, article, view, affiliation, or whatever you happen to have on offer, is regrettable, but let's just say, for the moment - he's a philosopher. And there is no question that what Shriver offers us is philosophical to the bone. Or at least, the meat.

The title of Shriver's piece, possibly contributed by some Times editor, is "Not Grass-Fed, but at Least Pain-Free". The former hyphenated adjective refers to the practice of allowing farm animals to graze freely rather than be starved, force-fed, or fed artificial or unnatural products; it is sort of Livestock 101 for organic farming advocates. I guess the latter ("pain-free") is a gesture in the direction of "cruelty-free", a popular label on products which purport to observe some ethical norms in the treatment of animals, especially in the matter of cosmetics testing. The title suggests that the general thrust of the piece will be to argue that although it may not be practical to observe every last principle of humane livestock farming, one should at least avoid practices that cause the animals pain.

That's what I would have guessed, anyway. And if you are an extraordinarily literaral person, you might say that the title is accurate. I, however, am not particularly literal; perhaps that's another reason I've turned some of my attention to writing fiction lately, aside from the purely pecuniary one. So I find the title disturbing for what it fails to convey; just as I find the piece disturbing as much for what it fails to say as for what it does. Indeed, I find it repugnant, morally and otherwise. But it will take a little work to tell you why.

Soon-to-be Dr. Shriver's perspective may be summed up as follows:
(1) "We are most likely stuck with factory farms..." since they produce most of our red meat.
(2) But animals in factory farms suffer a lot of discomfort.
(3) It is bad to feel pain. (Take that phrase as literally as you possibly can for the moment.)
(4) "It is still possible to reduce the animals' discomfort - through neuroscience." Cited in this regard are studies which show that it is possible to genetically engineer animals to block certain pain pathways (including studies underway in Shriver's own department). We will expand on this shortly.
(5) The meat from such genetically engineered animals would be safe to eat.
(6) Since new research shows that the suffering from pain can be dissociated from pain-avoidance behavior, the animals could be so engineered as not to casually injure themselves.
(7) In light of all this, we are morally obligated to use these genetic engineering techniques (once they are commercially available): "If we cannot avoid factory farms altogether, the least we can do is eliminate the unpleasantness of pain in the animals that must live and die on them. It would be far better than doing nothing at all."

Now, before I begint to apply my forceps to this view, allow me to note something which is, unfortunately, quite pertinent. I began, not without reason, by talking about money, and the limited opportunity to make some by writing philosophy. One creative way around this is to write an Op-Ed piece for the NY Times. But how much more creative might it be if one could gang up with some neuroscientists, help make some commercial applications of their genetic engineering experiments socially acceptable, and maybe scoop up a few bucks as the new methods come to market? Well, before anyone gets bent out of shape, I'm not suggesting that Adam Shriver is in it for the money. Zhou-Feng Chen, to whose research Shriver alludes, is at his school, but not in his department. (Who knows who's on his committee, though? There are few accidents in the sickening mire of academic poltics.) Moreover, in a news article and interview that covers much the same ground as the Times piece, Shriver has let on to the magazine New Scientist that he is "
a long-time vegetarian" and thinks that "eliminating factory farms would be the best option". According to the article, he says "I would be happy to jettison my idea" on the (implausible) condition that "someone can prove that we really are on the verge of moving to that kind of society". Not only that, but Shriver has published an article in Philosophical Psychology (V.19 #4 Aug 2006) in which he defends the idea that animals are sentient and "the belief that nonhuman animals experience pain in a morally relevant way is reasonable, though not certain" (from the Abstract; you are welcome to purchase the article for yourself for a cool $36.48 plus tax). Of course, if they are not sentient there might not be a very good ethical foundation for breeding them to be pain-free; but who knows which view is leading which? Anyway, it seems that Shriver is in some sense to be counted among the cow-huggers of the world, genuinely wants to do right by our bovine friends, and wouldn't sink his teeth into a veal cutlet even if the poor little things were treated like King Tut (who didn't live much longer than they do). Nevertheless, I feel compelled to point out that, whether it is Shriver or some colleagues for whom he is doing a completely pro bono service, there are big bucks to be made from patents, consulting fees and what-have-you if any such pain-eliminating genetic therapy were to become commercially viable. So without making any undue assumptions about philosophers, suffice it to say that eliminating the the social resistance to such techniques could certainly facilitate the accumulation of fortunes, which will only be obtained if public outrage does not make it too costly to market this therapy.

In any case, many a ship has foundered on the shoals of good intentions, and I'm sorry to say that this boat is well on its way to the bottom. New Scientist refers to the "yuck factor" in explaining why we react negatively to the idea of pain-free animals, and opines in an editorial that "logically speaking, pain-free animals make sense. But only in a world that has already devalued animal lives to the point where factory farming is acceptable. Our visceral reaction to pain-free animals is actually a displaced reaction against the system that makes them necessary.
" That's a catchy line; only it sort of sidesteps the issue by suggesting that we have to value the "lives" of animals to avoid the logic of pain-free meat. Similarly, the magazine quotes Marc Bekoff (UC Boulder) to the effect that "The fact that they are alive, even if not sentient, warrants against using them in ways that result in their death." In my view, any argument that depends on assigning such value to animal lives is weak, because though they are alive, they don't necessarily have "lives" in (say) a Kantian or Aristotelian sense, or value in (say) a Millian sense. Life and value as it relates to humans in the classic ethical theories may be quite different from what we call life and value in animals, because, e.g., they may not have a sense of themselves as having value in the way that we do, or exercise free will in the sense that we do, or perceive themselves as temporally continuous as we do, or see themselves as the subject of rights and responsibilities as we do, etc. And our perceiving them as being similar to us in these ways may be nothing more than a projection. I think we have to live with the possibility that this is the case, and figure out why, anyway, it is a terrible idea to treat animals in certain ways that would be extremely objectionable if they were applied to humans.

For even if animals do not have "lives" and value in our sense, we do; we have lives which are diminished in some way by treating animals as a mere means to an end.
That is, what we have to ask ourselves is why we value our own lives so little as to reason that by altering a basic feature of another creature's genetic makeup we can somehow make ourselves morally better. When you think about it, the idea is really quite incoherent. It suggests the following principle: a practice that is morally repugnant with respect to some living creature can be made less repugnant by changing the creature's mental state such that it does not find the practice unpleasant. But wasn't the problem in the first place that we (some of us at least) found the practice repugnant? Yes, of course - but wasn't the reason we found it repugnant just that we believed the creature found it unpleasant? No, emphatically not; we may not have had a thought about the creature's suffering, but found it repugnant nonetheless.

Suppose I see a fur trapper clubbing some baby seals to death. I run over and demand that he stop. "But don't you realize," he says, "that I am only clubbing those seals who have the genetic mutation depriving them of pain sensation." "Oh, well then", I say with a broad smile, "that's much better. I see you truly care about our flippered friends after all. Go right ahead then, just don't make a mistake and club one that feels pain!" Of course almost no one who reacts badly to the initial situation is going to be moved to change their feeling about it after being informed that a clubbing on the head is just like playing with beachball for some baby seals. This shows just how absurd it is to think that what is at stake here is merely the pain of animals. It is true that undue suffering should be alleviated in animals; but far from true that artificially removing the sensation of pain from animals we are intentionally harming puts us on a higher moral platform. It is just as likely that it makes us worse; after my conversation with the trapper I might would feel doubly sorry for the seals that could not even react appropriately to being critically injured.

The principle, "don't change our practice towards a subject; change the subject so it doesn't mind our practice" can lead down some even more bizarre paths. Suppose I could make it fine for a duck, indeed even beneficial, to have its bill cut off, by introducing a genetic mutation that makes ducks hop around like rabbits and nibble on lettuce instead of fishing. I am thinking the world would not exactly applaud this innovation, but rather deplore it twice, as a double insult to the animal. The truth is, we have turned a corner in which we can play fast and loose with ontology through genetic engineering, and our defective moral consciences will likely permit us to take what we can from this in order to diminish our sense of impropriety at otherwise heinous acts. Let us then clone thousands of humpbacks and blue whales with their pain sensors nicely removed so we may once again train our sonarscopes and exploding harpoons on them! Whaling is so fine a tradition, after all, and now we can practice it without our sea mammal friends suffering any pain! Rhino horns? Rip em out! - those rhinos were just pain-free clones anyway. What's a steel jaw trap to a bear that can't feel pain? Just another day in the forest, my friends!

Yes, bring on the neuroscientists, with their solutions to the ethical problems of mankind. Indeed, on a clear day you can see beyond the horizon to that earthly paradise where we can do just about anything we please without a tinge of moral uneasiness. Consider the following suggestion: suppose we had a nerve gas
(some bodywide form of lydocaine, perhaps) that we could spray over opposing soldiers in battle, leaving them unchanged except to to take away their ability to feel pain - wouldn't it be morally incumbent on us to use it? I mean, let's just agree that we can't get rid of war, okay? But we can at least kill the pain. People are known to suffer a lot from bullet wounds, flying shrapnel and incendiary devices, after all. Spray 'em with the gas, then spray them with bullets and feel much better about it.

Well, I can see the objection: if we did that, then they'd just keep coming at us and we'd never win. (Sounds like Night of the Living Dead? So, zombies are a respectable topic of philosophical discussion these days; and perhaps now they are a respectable goal of philosophical neuroscience.) A bullet through the kneecap is generally a very effective deterrent to a soldier's further advance, but if they don't even feel it they might just keep hopping along on their one good leg until they perhaps kill us. Okay, then, let's change the strategy: why not spray our own soldiers with pain-killing gas? Then we would not only benefit directly but win the war! Indeed, I'd be shocked if the Pentagon has not experimented with this sort of thing already. (Shutter Island?) If there is any downside to it, it would be that the pain-free soldier might not care that he is walking into machine gun fire, and would therefore take unnecessary risks. But the new techniques get around that problem by not suppressing the harm-avoidance genes, just the pain-feeling genes. The more capabilities we acquire with this technology, the more we can obtain designer creatures that have just those qualities we want them to have and lack just the ones we want them to lack.

If you are okay with this experiment so far, you are to my mind too demented to carry on a meaningful conversation with. For the first question one should have is: Doesn't this somehow give moral legitimacy to war, such that even wars of aggression could be fought without the cost in human suffering that is one of the great historical motivations to stop wars from happening? Aren't we, in the name of eliminating pain, actually making it easier to continue practices that are normally thought to be wrong partly because they cause a lot of it? Am I being unfair, suggesting that Shriver's well-intentioned defense of pain-free cows lead down a slippery slope, from cattle to the battlefield, and even sanctions war as a means to a political end? I don't think so. But in case you are still not convinced...

Suppose I am a serial killer, who likes to mutilate my victims. Perhaps I could get off with a lighter sentence if I tell the judge: in order to minimize the suffering of my victims I administered morphine before mutilating them. Fine, I guess that has a kind of impeccable logic to it. If I ever happen to fall into the hands of such a demon I hope it's one with a large supply of morphine. But suppose, now, I find a doctor who tells me that he distributes morphine on request to anyone who identifies himself as a possible serial killer. "If you can't eliminate serial killers," reasons the doctor, "at least you can help the victims by making morphine available to them." That's not quite so impeccable. "Doctors" have been employed in all sorts of heinous circumstances to medicate torture victims and other unfortuntes. Do we thank them for them humane servces - or deplore their participation in evil schemes, regardless of what their role is? If a neuroscientist delivers gene therapy technology to a poultry farm that shackles geese for the production of pate de foie gras, is this person a humanist - or an accomplice to a crime?

Of course, there are times when you want to eliminate pain artificially. Surgery is one. What benefit did people ever receive from feeling the pain of the surgical knife? I'm sure most of us reel in horror at stories of 19th century surgeries for which a shot of booze was the only anaesthetic. Besides, many modern types of operations are so long and invasive that no one could even bear them, and we would prefer to die instead. Eliminating surgical pain is an absolute good, because doing so makes it possible, or easier, to advance our personal agenda of being cured of some malady. But eliminating the pain of being shot with a bullet in a war does not typically advance the personal agenda of the one whose pain is eliminated. This could be the case if, say, highly motivated revolutionaties could get the gas; or soldiers fighting for a cause they are willing to die for, of their own free will. But typically, a soldier is a recruit, a draftee, a mercenary, a person seeking a way out of poverty - someone who either had no choice, or simply hoped they could get some benefit from military service without suffering greatly. Sending these people into battle under the influce of morphine, or whatever, advances the agenda of someone else who wants to use their bodies to achieve a political goal. Something similar clearly applies to animals used for meat. It is not as if the practice, as a whole, of slaughtering animals is for the animals' benefit. It is for the benefit of our appetites and the pockets of agribusiness. To make it painless for the animal to undergo this slaughter is to make ourselves immune to the thought that something may be wrong with our practices. This is like a meta-wrong that does not merely outweigh the utilitarian benefit it promotes but surrounds it like a dark cloud. Lobotomies had their benefits too. Come to think of it, the sponsors of pain-free livestock might just be consistent enough to think it's a perfectly reasonable option today.

Something is rotten in Denmark, and it may be a piece of painlessly produced meat. I suggest the following principle: elimination of pain is good relative to a situation in which a reasonable and rationally chosen goal of the subject is advanced by it; otherwise, it is either morally neutral, or a further harm in addition to whatever caused the pain. I think this saves most of our intuitions about pain. Pain elimination for medical reasons is generally good; the one in pain wants to recover and has good reason to want it. Pain relief for the suicide bomber is probably an additional evil, as the goal is not reasonable and pain relief may encourage the subject to pursue it. Pain relief in most situations where such relief advances no goal of the subject but makes the subject more compliant to undergo potentially harmful experiences is an evil, as it makes pain zombies out of formerly sentient subjects, and only advances goals to which the subject ought to rationally object. Pain relief is perhaps morally neutral when it neither advances any goals of the subject nor deprives the subject of any rationally selected good.

This is all quite apart from: (a) side effects that come with pain relief, either through gene therapy or medication, which may increase the potential harm of such treatments; (b) the fact that deprivation of pain sensations can lead to further harm due to the subject's inability to recognize internal or external danger signs and avoid them (this problem is completely eliminated by the claim that animals could be engineered to want to avoid harm without having pain, since there is pain they can't avoid but will not complain about even though it might signal a serious problem); and (c) the use of unethical, harmful practices in experimentation on subjects in the pursuit of pain relief therapies. Each of these could require another essay, but I don't want to write a book about Shriver's proposal. I do, however, want to briefly address something I alluded to earlier, closely related to the second (b) of these points.

To support his view, Shriver selects a couple of specific forms of discomfort that animals are forced to undergo in order to provide gustatory delights for the human race. One is the confinement of calves to produce veal; another is "severe gastric distress" caused by "unnatural high-grain diets". Keeping in mind that the ability of the genetically engineered animals to "recognize and avoid, when possible, situations where they might be brusied or otherwise injured" is supposed to be a key advantage of the new method. It is well known that people with the rare medical condition that deprives them of pain sensations (CIPA, Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhydrosis) often end up losing limbs and sustaining other very serious injuries. No one would think such a condition would be beneficial to animals without the added claim that they can be engineered to avoid harm even without the motivation of having to avoid pain. But look at the conditions Shriver himself uses as examples. Unnatural confinement is not something the animal can avoid even if they do wish to avoid harm. Veal calves confined so tightly that they can't sit or lie down; geese shackled to prevent almost any movement whatsoever; pigs attached by a snout ring to a wall or fence; these kinds of barbaric practices produce distress that cannot be avoided by leaving the animal with the ability to recognize potential harm. Nor are they made any kinder by removing pain sensations. Diets of grain, injections of hormones and antibiotics, all sorts of practices that create internal conditions the animal cannot possibly avoid even with all the wonders of modern neuroscience: how is saving the harm-avoidance instinct supposed to help in the least with these? What it comes down to is really this: by having the animal take care of avoiding bruises, self-inflicted wounds, and the like, this technique saves the livestock farmer and the slaughterhouse from having to deal with thousands of needlessly injured animals who would thereby end up in the debit column on their balance sheets. The underlying point is not to give the animal a more normal life than a pain zombie would be expected to have, but to cut losses for the owner. That pretty much guts the moral argument for this technique even without all the bizarre consequences it entails.

Shriver is a vegetarian; I'm not. He has a kind of moral lead on that one. I was a fairly strict vegan for about two decades, but now I eat poultry often enough, organic or free range and antibiotic free when I can get it; I eat fish, and I feed my kids red meat when they ask for it. I do not know of a convincing moral argument against killing animals for food. But I find the practices of the meat industry as a whole disturbing, morally repugnant and environmentally destructive. Of particular concern are the specialty foods that require the mistreatment of animals through extraordinarily strict confinement. But slaughterhouses and livestock farms are not alone in mistreating other species. Thoroughbred race horses and circus elephants don't fare much better. Numerous acts of terror are committed against animals by poachers and people seeking mythical cures for all sorts of ailments - Asian tigers and African rhinos being well-kn own examples. Add to that the frequent abuse of domestic animals, the use of now illegal painful traps in the wild, and perhaps we should just start a breeding program to replace all existing animal species with pain-free substitutes. Or we can continue building the pressure for the abusive industries and individuals to change their practice. That's what we do with abusive practices towards humans, right? Let's not start developing pain-free women so they can be burned to death over a dowry or have their sexual parts surgically removed without causing great ethical dilemmas; let's start treating animals in a more humane way and put the pressure on the veal and foie gras producers and the other abusive practices.