We may soon be able to make pain-free animals, according to New Scientist. The study they reported on finds that people not enthused by creating such creatures for scientific research, which is interesting. Robin Hanson guessed prior to seeing the article that this was because endorsing pain free animals would require thinking that farmed animals now were in more pain than wild animals, which people don’t think. However it turns out that vegetarians and animal welfare advocates were much more opposed to the idea than others in the study, so another explanation is needed.
Robert Wiblin suggested to me that vegetarians are mostly in favor of animals not being used, as well as not being hurt, so they don’t want to support pain-free use, as that is supporting use. He made this comparison:
Currently children are being sexually abused. The technology now exists to put them under anaesthetic so that they don’t experience the immediate pain of sexual abuse. Should we put children under anaesthetic to sexually abuse them?
A glance at the comments on other sites reporting the possibility of painless meat suggests vegetarians cite this along with a lot of different reasons for disapproval. And sure enough it seems mainly meat eaters who say eliminating pain would make them feel better about eating meat. The reasons vegetarians (and others) give for not liking the idea, or for not being more interested in pain-free meat, include:
- The animals would harm themselves without knowing
- Eating animals is bad for environmental or health reasons
- Killing is always wrong
- Animals have complex social lives and are sad when their family are killed, regardless of pain
- Animals are living things [?!]
- There are other forms of unpleasantness, such as psychological torture
- How can we tell they don’t feel pain?
- We will treat them worse if we think they can’t feel it, and we might be wrong
- There are better solutions, such as not eating meat
- It’s weird, freaky, disrespectful
- It’s selfish and unnecessary for humans to do this to animals
Many reasonable reasons. The fascinating thing though is that vegetarians seem to consistently oppose the idea, yet not share reasons. Three (not mutually exclusive) explanations:
- Vegetarians care more about animals in general, so care about lots of related concerns.
- Once you have an opinion, you collect a multitude of reasons to have it. When I was a vegetarian I thought meat eating was bad for the environment, bad for people who need food, bad for me, maybe even bad for animals. This means when a group of people lose one reason to hold a shared belief they all have other reasons to put forward, but not necessarily the same ones.
- There’s some single reason vegetarians are especially motivated to oppose pain-free meat, so they each look for a reason to oppose it, and come across different ones, as there are many.
I’m interested by 3 because the situation reminds me of a pattern in similar cases I have noticed before. It goes like this. Some people make personal sacrifices, supposedly toward solving problems that don’t threaten them personally. They sort recycling, buy free range eggs, buy fair trade, campaign for wealth redistribution etc. Their actions are seen as virtuous. They see those who don’t join them as uncaring and immoral. A more efficient solution to the problem is suggested. It does not require personal sacrifice. People who have not previously sacrificed support it. Those who have previously sacrificed object on grounds that it is an excuse for people to get out of making the sacrifice.
The supposed instrumental action, as the visible sign of caring, has become virtuous in its own right. Solving the problem effectively is an attack on the moral people – an attempt to undermine their dream of a future where everybody longs to be very informed on the social and environmental effects of their consumption choices or to sort their recycling really well. Some examples of this sentiment:
- A downside to recreating extinct species with cloning is that it will let people bother even less about stopping extinctions.
- A recycling system where items are automatically and efficiently sorted at the plant rather than individually in homes would be worse because then people would be ignorant about the effort it takes to recycle.
- Modern food systems lamentably make people lazy and ignorant of where their food comes from.
- Making cars efficient just lets people be lazy and drive them more, rather than using real solutions like bikes.
- The internet’s ready availability and general knowledge allows people to be ignorant and not bother learning facts.
In these cases, having solved a problem a better way should mean that efforts to solve it via personal sacrifice can be lessened. This would be a good thing if we wanted to solve the problem, and didn’t want to sacrifice. We would rejoice at progress allowing ever more ignorance and laziness on a given issue. But often we instead regret the end of an opportunity to show compassion and commitment. Especially when we were the compassionate, committed ones.
Is vegetarian opposition to preventing animal pain an example of this kind of motivation? Vegetarianism is a big personal effort, a moral issue, a cause of feelings of moral superiority, and a feature of identity which binds people together. It looks like other issues where people readily claim fear of an end to virtuous efforts. How should we distinguish between this and the other explanations?