We live in a society that values change and innovation1 but some changes are too much to stomach. An example might be the proposal to eliminate pain and suffering in cattle raised in feedlots or chickens confined to huge barns (or cages).
"What's wrong with that?", you might ask. You might think that eliminating feedlots is a good thing, but that's not what's being proposed. Instead, the proposal is to genetically modify animals so they quite literally "feel no pain" (Shriver 2009).
The author of this proposal, Adam Shriver, is a philosopher and the suggestion should be treated as a thought experiment and not as a feat of genetic engineering that's about to be implemented by a major meatpacking company. Shriver is a vegetarian so he's familiar with the main arguments against eating meat.
One of those arguments is that the animals we eat are often raised under inhumane conditions where they suffer pain and psychological stress. If we can genetically eliminate pain and stress, then one of the main arguments against meat eating disappears. The logic is impeccable.
Vegans and vegetarians are not about to throw steaks on the BBQ. That's because the "pain and stress" argument isn't really behind their decision to avoid meat.2 There are other, far more important, reasons behind their choice of food. What a thought experiment will do, hopefully, is get rid of illogical arguments and focus more attention on the real ethical questions that divide vegetarians and omnivores.
Which brings us to the "yuck factor." I don't read the journal Neuroethics where the Shriver paper was published. I learned about it in the September 5-11 issue of New Scientist [Pain-free animals could take suffering out of farming]. An editorial in that issue points out that in spite of rationality "... there is something deeply unsettling about an animal engineered to be pain free" [Pain-free animals would not be guilt-free].
Sometimes it's not easy to explain why something is unsettling. This is called the "yuck factor" in the editorial. The yuck factor is not always a reliable indicator of real ethical problem.
Some conservative commentators argue that the yuck factor is a reliable indicator that a moral Rubicon has been crossed. Yet all too often such distaste is irrational and a barrier to progress. Progressive thought often comes from ignoring such reactions and thinking things through logically instead.The editorial argues that opposition to pain-free animals is not irrational. The "real" debate is whether factory farming is acceptable in the first place. It's perfectly respectable to oppose the development of genetically modified (GM) animals, according to the editors of New Scientist.
Maybe, maybe not, that's not the point. As Shriver points out, if you use the argument of pain and suffering then you are bound by rationality to support GM animals. Taking that argument off the table does not mean that you favor factory farms and meat-eating.
The arguments between vegetarians and omnivores often boil down to arguments based on emotions versus arguments based on rationality. I usually side with rationality (but not always).
1. Sometimes this causes problems, such as when we get confused about the difference between "change" and "improvement." They are not synonyms.
2. And neither is the "ecology" argument. If we could prove tomorrow that raising free-range cattle on scrubland was more energy-efficient than trying to grow wheat on that same land, it wouldn't convert a single vegetarian.
Shriver, A. (2009) Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality has Stalled? Neuroethics published online Aug. 21, 2009 [SpringerLink] [doi: 10.1007/s12152-009-9048-6]