Why we shouldn’t create pain-free animals

A proposal to genetically modify farm animals so that they don’t feel pain is practically and morally misguided.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Politics

A recent article in Neuroethics suggests that developments in neuroscience and genetics mean it might be possible to create animals incapable of feeling pain (1).

Adam Shriver, the author of the article, argues that if we can create animals incapable of suffering then we are morally obliged to do so. Shriver follows the lead of animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer who argued, in 1975, that everyone ought to be a vegetarian to prevent the intense suffering caused by modern factory-farming conditions (2). Shriver points out that, despite Singer’s admonition, we have continued to increase our consumption of meat. Consequently, Shriver suggests that we need a new way to meet the ethical demand made by Singer. Creating pain-free animals meets Singer’s demand without everyone having to become a vegetarian and is a suggestion apparently welcomed by Singer himself (3).

Shriver’s proposal might sound like a no-lose situation but, unfortunately, the proposal is bound to fail for many practical reasons. More importantly, I would argue that Shriver and Singer’s approach to animal welfare should be rejected regardless of practicalities because it is morally bankrupt.

Rodents genetically engineered to not express certain proteins or neuroreceptors demonstrate a limited pain response (4). In general, these genetically modified rats or mice seem less ‘bothered’ by pain than their genetically normal brethren. Most of the effects appear to depend on disruption to an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC was identified over 20 years ago as a key brain region mediating pain unpleasantness (5).

In at least some human cases, disrupting ACC can prevent patients experiencing pain unpleasantness (6). But these effects are not always demonstrated. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that multiple regions of the brain are involved in pain unpleasantness and the brain has the ability to reorganise itself. Consequently, genetic modification might fail, for at least some animals, to disrupt pain unpleasantness at all, and, for all animals, may only work in the short term. Until further empirical trials with mammals are complete, the ability of scientists to knock out pain unpleasantness in any common farm animal remains uncertain.

For the uncertainty to be addressed there will have to be large-scale trials performed using the appropriate target animals (cows and chickens appear to be Shriver’s favourites). These trials will have to demonstrate an absence of pain unpleasantness, which is not easy because pain is a subjective phenomenon and animals lack the most obvious expression of subjectivity, which is language. Nevertheless, assuming that can be achieved, the trials will also have to demonstrate that the genetic modification poses minimal health risk to the animals and to the people that will eat them. These trials will be difficult, controversial and expensive.

I have every expectation that science could, if necessary, perform such trials successfully. And I also have every expectation that pain-altering genetic modifications could be successfully managed without damaging the animals or their consumers. But I am highly dubious as to the worth of such an exercise.

First, equating the pain of animals with the pain of humans is at least a moral blunder. Part of the unpleasantness of pain for humans is due to our recognition that pain has consequences beyond the immediate sensory insult. We have a past, a present and a future that is potentially threatened by serious noxious events. This autobiographical nature of human experience, the ability to not just react but to know that we are reacting, is unique to human beings. Chickens do not worry that a lost beak will influence how they are perceived by their fellow chickens and whether this will mean they will have to grow old in a state of loneliness. Only human beings experience that kind of suffering and so the complexity of human pain is, at least, a step beyond that of animals.

The lack of equivalence of human and animal pain calls into question the utilitarian equation that Singer and Shriver base their morality on. If pain does not matter to animals in the way that pain matters to us, then negating pain in animals is simply less important than Singer and Shriver propose.

The hasty equivalence of humans and animals is also problematic because it tends to minimise the many human problems that still plague humanity. It would be tolerable to spend time and effort creating a pain-free nirvana for animals about to be slaughtered had we resolved the major problems facing humanity. But we have not. The inner cities of Western nations are still plagued by substandard housing, limited job opportunities, inequitable access to healthcare and education, and by many other symptoms of poverty. The citizens of the Third World still suffer outrageously limited opportunities and early death due to malaria, TB, cholera, malnutrition and AIDS, as well as a variety of disabilities following innumerable diseases, all of which could be tackled by the right application of desire and effort.

Campaigns to make chickens happy will not resolve the problems humanity faces and will even make those problems worse because cheap chicken at least makes life a little easier for those living hand to mouth.

The effort to reduce suffering in the world is not, in principle, problematic. But beginning that effort from a position of moral righteousness regarding the condition of farm animals exaggerates the equivalence of humans and animals and is thus misplaced and misguided.

Dr Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham. Nina Powell, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham School of Psychology researching moral reasoning, also contributed to this article.

Previously on spiked

Stuart Derbyshire rejected the idea that fish feel pain and argued that while animal behaviour can look intelligent, that doesn’t mean it is. Josie Appleton defended fur. James Panton stood up for animal research. Helene Guldberg urged us to stop weeping over whaling. Or read more at spiked issue Animals.

(1) Adam Shriver. ‘Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality has Stalled?’ Neuroethics, 2009; DOI 10.1007/s12152-009-9048-6

(2) Peter Singer. 1975. Animal Liberation. New York: Random House.

(3) Pain-free animals could take suffering out of farming, New Scientist

(4) Wei, F., C. Qiu, S. Kim, L. Muglia, J. Maas Jr., V. Pineda, H. Xu, Z. Chen, D. Storm, L.J. Muglia, and M. Zhuo. 2002. ‘Genetic elimination of behavioral sensitization in mice lacking calmodulin-stimulated adenylyl cyclases’. Neuron 36: 713–26; Sun, Y., Y. Gao, Z. Zhao, B. Huang, J. Yin, G. Taylor, and Z. Chen. 2008. ‘Involvement of P311 in the affective, but not in the sensory component of pain’. Molecular Pain 4: 23.

(5) Vogt BA, Derbyshire SWG, Jones AKP. ‘Pain Processing in four regions of human cingulate cortex localized with coregistered PET and MR imaging’. European Journal of Neuroscience 1996; 8: 1461-1473.

(6) Foltz EL, White LE. ‘Pain relief by frontal cingulotomy’. Journal of Neurosurgery 1962; 19: 89–100.

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Topics Politics


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