Thursday, February 25, 2010


A response to Shriver's modest proposal:
To the Editor:

Adam Shriver applauds the possibility that we may soon be able to reduce the discomfort of the animals we choose to raise in the horrific warehouses of factory farms through neuroscience. I’d like to propose an alternative: that we consider using neuroscience and genetic engineering to modify humans so that they derive less pleasure from consuming large amounts of animal flesh and more pleasure from consuming things like tofu.

Another option, of course, is that we leave both humans and animals unmodified and instead encourage the humans to use their superior intelligence, freer wills and more developed moral sense to see how deeply repellent it is for humans to continue to devote so much energy to find new ways of exploiting animals so that they can have tasty morsels on their plates.

N. Ann Davis
Claremont, Calif., Feb. 19, 2010

The writer is a professor of human relations and philosophy at Pomona College.

It's an interesting debate, but at this stage it's not very well defined. Shriver's suggestion seems rather plausible, "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." The critics largely seem to be saying that we should avoid factory farms. Not that Shriver disagrees. We have one side arguing for a conditional ought and the other arguing that we ought to make the conditional's antecedent false. To which I say, "I agree!"

This is reminiscent of a previous debate that took place between Kazez and an animal liberationist opposed to meliorative efforts on the grounds that such efforts only serve to make us comfortable with animal exploitation and thus lead to greater long term wrongdoing. Speaking just for myself, I think there's something quite horrible about the thought that we should refrain from minimizing animal suffering when that can be done and we know that it cannot be eradicated. However, there's something to the idea that we oughtn't undermine long term efforts to minimize animal suffering. So, maybe the horrible thought is just one of those horrible things we have to live with. What's interesting here is that it's not entirely clear whether Shriver's suggestions would, if followed, have much causal impact on the continuing practice of factory farming. I simply don't think we'll ever reach a critical mass of people to make these things go away, so I tend to think that we cannot avoid factory farms altogether. If we cannot (notice the 'if'), should we give these animals pain killers if we have them? If we should (and I think we should do what's in our power to minimize their suffering), I guess I don't see any principled objection to Shriver's proposal. I don't see any principled difference between what Shriver is proposing and the more modest proposal that we give the animals pain killers if that would help reduce their suffering. It's hard for me to recover from the letters what the opposition view is.

1 comment:

Adam Shriver said...

Thanks! I missed that letter when it came out, but I think your response captures exactly what I would say.