Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pain Free Animals & Utilitarian Calculus

Robin Hanson has an interesting commentary on the possibility of using animals that are genetically modified not to feel pain for animal testing and livestock. The idea is that people would have fewer moral qualms about eating meat from an animal that didn't experience the pain of slaughter and that people would approve of animal testing if the animals didn't suffer.

This reminds us of Utilitarianism. According to the Utilitarians nothing is in itself good or bad. An action's moral value is determined by the consequences. And we evaluate the consequences by the quantity of the resultant pleasure and pain, since these are the only absolute measures of virtue. If something causes, in the aggregate, across all persons that it affects, more pleasure than pain, then it's good, but if more pain than pleasure then it's bad. This means that we could skew this Utilitarian calculus in our favor by making something entirely pain free. Thus, it would be impossible to do anything bad to a thing that feels no pain (so long as we assume that no one else is affected).

A separate survey gives us some insight into home open to thinking of things in Utilitarian terms. According to this survey which asked people whether they'd be okay with creating pain-free animals for animal testing, people are pretty equally split, about half favoring, half opposing. People who are opposed to cruelty to animals altogether (vegetarians and the animal protection community) are most strongly opposed to it. I think many people probably oppose it simply because they oppose genetic modification entirely. The results are not unambiguous. For example those most opposed to animal cruelty when asked, if pain-free animals already were around, would a scientist "be morally obliged to use a pain-free animal in an otherwise painful experiment," a significant majority agreed.

The idea of a pain-free animal does provide an interesting thought experiment for Utilitarianism: if you have a person who can't experience pain is it impossible to do anything bad to them? I don't think this undermines Utilitarianism, but it does provide an example to chew upon, especially if Utilitarians want to think upon correlative issues like, how do we formulate ethics for the treatment of the dead?

1 comment:

pendens proditor said...

We do have to take overall welfare into account. In a way, the thought experiment is already a reality. There are people in the world who were born without the ability to feel pain ( and this condition routinely causes more suffering rather than relief from it. Their desire to avoid permanent damage to their bodies outweighs their desire to not feel pain. Pain would grant them relief from micromanaging every aspect of their lives to keep themselves safe.

But then maybe these higher level desires are things that animals are immune to, just as they're immune to the pleasures of Monty Python and Mozart. If we can somehow grant them longevity (not easy), keep them fed, and ease their boredom, maybe they'd do just fine without pain. It's hard to say.

If we're talking about a stronger version of the thought experiment, then I think it's already pretty agreed upon by Utilitarians that if an entity has no preferences about what happens to it, that entity can't suffer.