Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Peter Singer: Gengineering Past Ethical Impasses

The following exchange occurs in an interview published today on in connection with the appearance of ethicist Peter Singer's new book (co-written with Jim Mason), The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter:
SALON: [I]f it were possible to genetically engineer a brainless bird, grown strictly for its meat? Do you feel that this would be ethically acceptable?

Singer: It would be an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling. That's the huge plus to me.

SALON: What if you could engineer a chicken with no wings, so less space would be required?

Singer: I guess that's an improvement too, assuming it doesn't have any residual instincts, like phantom pain. If you could eliminate various other chicken instincts, like its preference for laying eggs in a nest, that would be an improvement too.

In the interview Singer clearly advocates as he has always done -- and definitely I agree with him -- that one should become vegetarian both to ameliorate nonhuman animal suffering and to diminish the environmental catastrophes associated with modern factory farming methods introduced to more "cost-effectively" indulge the apparently unslakable American taste for corpses to eat.

But it is interesting to note that he is also willing to entertain technological interventions as ways to ameliorate nonhuman animal suffering. In an entry a few month's past, I noted that from my own perspective (I've been an ethical vegetarian for over a decade and a half) I would have no objection to the creation and eating of "flesh" cultured from a cell extracted from a donor animal, so long as I was satisfied that the best scientific consensus indicated that this process introduced no health or safety risks to those who consumed flesh so produced, nor caused death or suffering in the donor animal.

This seems pretty close to the first hypothetical scenario Singer entertains in the exchange above. The second scenario is one I am personally far less happy about, as -- to be fair -- Singer appears to be as well.

Since Singer is a rigorously utilitarian ethician, as I am not myself, he is disinclined to make an ethical case from an attribution of rights to animals, whether human or nonhuman. Given his willingness to entertain both changes of personal conduct as well as technological interventions to ethically ameliorate suffering, I wonder how he would feel about neuroceutical interventions that might render human beings "satisfied" with their own exploitation as an alternative to an emancipatory politics to overthrow such exploitation.

I personally do make moral, ethical, and political claims that depend on attributions of rights, and so I find it easy to repudiate the prosthetic production of cheerful slaves. For me, part of what it means to be able to participate in a legible scene of public consent is that one can never consent to the loss of consent.

As it happens, by the way, I suspect that I actually agree with Singer when he asserts that "philosophically I have doubts about the foundations of rights." It's just that I am not particularly troubled by a groundlessness of rights as he seems to be. I see rights as a kind of human language, as social "rites" that we substantiate or invigorate in the performance of them rather than as deep "natures" or "substances" we presumably discern in others lucky enough to bear them as we do. For me, the rites that are rights are a kind of shorthand for complex dynamic pragmatic protocols that help us facilitate desirable outcomes like the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, the elimination of duress from consensual relations, and the negotiation of abiding tensions between the key democratic values of equity and diversity. While my ethics are utilitarian enough that I feel the same ferocious normative tug to ameliorate suffering wherever I can that Singer does, my respect for the language of rights definitively articulates the forms my interventions will take in these ethical efforts.

Of course, nonhuman animals do not participate in such scenes of consent -- although genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification may well change this for at least some nonhuman animals soon enough -- and it may be that this question of consent helps explain why Singer might entertain the tweaking into winglessness of a bird to be exploited as food as an ethically improved state of affairs while, one would hope, he would not consider the tweaking into slavishness of a person to be exploited for labor as an ethically improved state of affairs. But I would be curious to know from any Peter Singer fans out there among my readers -- many of whom have surely read his work more widely and carefully than I have done -- how he would distinguish these cases from his own perspective.

1 comment:

Dale Carrico said...

I wrote this back when I was trying to be polite to futurologists, hence the brief genuflections to the implausible imminence of futurological preoccupations like lab-grown meat and nonhuman uplift. I was critiquing the assumptions and aspirations embedded in these notions more forcefully and forthrightly not to long after this post was penned, and you can find those critiques anthologized here.