New Scientist covers the final frontier of factory farming: animals that don’t mind abominable treatment and slaughter.
My reaction is horror. What kind of person looks at the suffering in controlled animal feeding operations and thinks: you know how we could fix this? By genetically engineering the animals not to care!
I’ve been surprised to see philosophers and economists react more positively than the editors at New Scientist to what strikes me as a monstrous idea. I wonder if it’s the case that philosophers and economists are more inclined than most to work with an impoverished notion of animal welfare. It is common enough among philosophers that pain and pleasure are understood as decent proxies for welfare. We shouldn’t mistake the proxy for the truth. Pain and pleasure no more constitute an animal’s welfare than they do a person’s. Consider wirehead rats: maximum pleasure, objectively terrible welfare.
Something more like Aristotelean thriving seems closer to the public’s intuitions, when it comes to animal welfare. (Also, I think, it’s closer to the truth.) Factory farms disgust us not, at bottom, because the animals in them are in pain. Their pain flags an underlying problem: they are systematically prevented from thriving. Blocking their pain doesn’t allow the pigs to be any more successfully piggy.
By Simon Keller, University of Melbourne (December 2008)