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Bioethics & Medical Ethics

Eating Stupid Pigs

Marco Kaisth asks, could radical genetic engineering create ethical factory farms?

Pigs are exceptionally intelligent animals. They’re able to solve odor quizzes, recognize themselves in mirrors, and even play rudimentary video games. One Cambridge University Professor, Dr Donald Bloom, has even claimed that pigs “have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly [more so than] three-year-olds” (‘New Slant on Chump Chops’, Cambridge Daily News , 29 March, 2002). Despite their intellectual powers, 110 million pigs are slaughtered for food every year in the US alone, the vast majority of them after short, miserable lives on factory farms.

The abuses on these farms are well documented, and the conditions in which such pigs are placed are widely acknowledged to be deplorable and unethical. Sows are forced into ‘gestation crates’ too small for them to even turn around, and male piglets are castrated, their tails cut off and their teeth broken at the ends with pliers, without painkillers.

One’s moral reaction to this mistreatment of pigs is only intensified by recognising the pigs’ intelligence and self-awareness. This intensification stems from the assumption that the capacity of a creature to suffer is proportional to its level of intelligence, to the depth of its feelings, and the complexity of awareness. Killing a dolphin is more immoral than squashing a spider, even disregarding the fact that both species are not equally endangered, simply because the dolphin is a more conscious creature. This is also why animal farmers have a greater ethical responsibility to their animals than crop farmers to their crops.


Given all this, I want to raise a tricky question: Would it be more okay to slaughter and eat a pig if it were significantly less intelligent? Suppose that through genetic modification pigs were able to give birth to ‘pygs’ – animals identical to pigs in every way, except being much less bright. Wouldn’t eating a pyg be more ethical than eating a pig? Plants show a certain very limited level of intelligence, by stretching towards the sun and reacting to their leaves being plucked. If a pyg were to be created to have the level of intelligence of a plant, wouldn’t eating it be no more unethical than eating a salad?

Well, the first question here is whether the actual genetic manipulation involved would be unethical. Some would argue that any type of genetic manipulation is unethical, and is basically ‘playing God’. However, man’s history of manipulating nature’s mechanisms to his advantage is long and varied. Selective breeding has been used by farmers for millennia, simply by picking the best organism to breed, thereby increasing the prevalence of certain traits in the gene pool. Cattle were originally smaller and yielded a lot less milk. Tomatoes were originally the size of blueberries, but were bred into the modern variants. These are all forms of artificial genetic manipulation, even if past methods were slower and less direct than the laboratory-based manipulation possible today.

Moreover, in the modern age, man has altered the environment so drastically that the changes are at a near-irreversible level. The only way to combat an anthropogenic apocalypse seems now to be innovation rather than conservation; genetically modified foliage could absorb significantly more carbon dioxide than its natural equivalents, while genetically modified bacteria could help terraform presently unviable soil into arable land. Genetic modification seems therefore just a modification and continuation of long-established practices with new technology.

If so, then the actual process of the creation of a pyg would either not be unethical, at least not for these reasons, or else only be as unethical as other actions humans have already committed.

However, creating a tomato that bruises less easily is one thing, but artificially lowering a species’ intelligence seems quite another. Would doing so be an unethical action precisely because it alters the potential of the animal to think? A pyg would suffer less than a pig, because it cannot be aware of or understand its situation even to the degree that a pig can, but at the cost of its intelligence. This quickly brings us to a fundamental philosophical question: is an extremely painful but intelligent existence preferable to enduring the same pain but without having the consciousness to recognize it? An animal with the intelligence of the pyg would forever live in the eternal present, without grasping the implications of the stream of any consciousness that forms its mind. It could feel pain at any instant, but never know the accumulative pain of something that was more cognizant of its plight. A more intelligent animal, however, might thereby more intensively feel the smothering burden of its condition. Peter Weissel Zapffe, the pessimistic Norwegian existentialist, argued in his classic 1933 essay The Last Messiah that anxiety and depression are necessary results of humanity’s evolved awareness. This follows logically from the assumption that a species with a higher level of consciousness also has a higher potential for suffering.

Utility or goodness, however, is not limited to not suffering. There are things in life which yield tremendous positive benefit, despite not being simply the lack or suffering. These include the satisfaction of accruing knowledge and the ability to question. It is conceivable to imagine two factory farms, identical except for the fact that one raises and slaughters pigs, and the other pygs. The one producing pygs would create less suffering, at the cost of the conscious potential of the animals. Is that too high a cost?

However, consider that the thought-potential of each animal has an inverse relationship with the utility of their lives in the factory, as the more thoughtful animal would be able only to grasp the terror and futility of its existence to a greater degree. If it is assumed that a ‘thinking’ pig would be aware of only its strife, the existence and slaughter of a pyg seems therefore to be preferable to that of a pig.

A possible objection could be that there’s a very heavy weighting to the value of thought, so that an animal that can think to any degree is always inherently better off in some way than one that cannot. However, this objection utilises the tricky assumption that those who think more thereby benefit more. This assumption is nullified by the fact that the inevitable consequence of intelligent consciousness in a factory farm environment is a form of Zapffe’s ‘cosmic panic’, where one is seized by the tremendous futility of existence in an uncaring cosmos. Insofar as it feels anything, the pig is doomed to feel that their world – in this case, their world being exclusively the slaughterhouse – is unjust and without goodness. This causes pigs to react in ways evidencing extreme emotional suffering similar to the behavior of humans after long periods of solitary confinement, and usually indicating extreme depression, such as biting their cell bars.

It seems then that the creation of pygs could help to develop more ethical factory farms which produce significantly less negative utility in terms of suffering. In this case, radical genetic modification could reduce the ethical problems posed by factory farming. Indeed, genetic modification holds the potential for a future where all meat production involves the same level of suffering as is widely accepted in crop harvesting. If so, the growing need for meat in the developing world, and the status of meat as a staple in the developed world, could both be addressed with a minimum of animal suffering. In a world that has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to reform the factory farm, the most benign solution could be to reform the animal.

© Marco Kaisth 2017

Marco Kaisth is a student based in West Windsor, New Jersey, and in Chicago. He is interested in environmental ethics and the holistic study of development. Writing this article converted him to veganism.

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