Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Should we eat Frankenmeat?

As someone who's a vegetarian for largely ethical reasons, I'm intrigued by the prospect of scientists in a lab creating meat from real animal cells -- using the same basic mechanism as human stem-cell research -- that would be food from the start, bypassing the being-a-living-animal stage.

There seems to be a buzz around lab-created meat: there was an International In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway last month.* And predictably, PETA (an organization I have very mixed feelings about) is promoting the idea by offering a million dollars to the first scientist who brings the concept to fruition.

Unfortunately, the plan has some serious (I'm guessing fatal) flaws. For one thing, the progress has been miniscule (literally) and glacial:

Despite considerable hubbub over the technology in recent months, we're still years -- or, more likely, decades -- away from affordable lab-grown meat. The current experiments are taking place in bioreactors that measure only a few hundred milliliters in volume, and the longest complete muscle tissues are just 2 centimeters long. Researchers are nowhere close to scaling up their production to market-ready levels, to say nothing of market-ready prices. A Dutch team's lab-grown pork, for example, would cost around $45,000 per pound—assuming they could make an entire pound of the stuff.
But what really disturbs me about the whole project is that
manufactured meat promises to replicate only the taste and texture of processed meat; as far as we are from enjoying lab-grown hamburger, we're even further from perfecting man-made rib-eyes. So even if meat labs did become viable commercial enterprises, the naturally raised meat industry would hardly vanish.

Given our penchant for gluttony, affordable lab-grown meat could even be harmful to our health: We might simply increase our beef and pork consumption to keep pace with production, as has occurred over the past half-century. (According to this disturbing assessment, we annually consume 50 pounds more meat per-capita than Americans did in the 1950s.)
As that passage implies, it's foolish to assume that either the production or the consumption of meat is static rather than dynamic, although this is often presupposed in arguments against vegetarianism ("They're just gonna die anyway").** This contradicts the plain facts and basic rules of economics.

But there's one thing that specifically does not disturb me. William Saletan (a liberal who often writes about bioethical issues but is not a vegetarian) says that lab-made meat would be
a colossal concession ... for the animal-rights movement. Lab meat "would mimic flesh," says PETA's press release. Mimic? Lab meat is flesh. ... It won't walk or quack like a duck, so technically, it's not a duck. But if it tastes like duck, chews like duck, and comes from duck, it's duck.
Well, I'm suspicious of arguments that hinge on a semantic distinction like "duck" vs. "a duck." It seems to me that if something is one of those, it's both. If we're attributing momentous moral significance to a little thing like the word "a," that should set off alarm bells: is that really what matters? I don't think so.

People have this impulse to turn moral debates into semantic debates. "What counts as torture?" "What counts as human life?" "When is someone dead?" "Is lab meat made of animals?"

I don't care about any of those questions! When it comes to ethical issues, these are the only things I care about: (1) What exactly is going on? (2) Is it a good thing or bad thing for that to be happening?

I don't care if waterboarding or slapping someone in the face is called "torture." It either will or won't be called torture depending on how any given person chooses to use that word. The important question is: Is that behavior something that we should be engaging in? Skip the semantics and go straight to the ethics.

Yes, language can be essential to thought, but language can also box in thought. (I'm inclined to agree with the thought-precedes-language side of the debate outlined at that link.)

If you want to say that lab meat is made of animals just as normal meat is, then fine. That just means there's no semantic distinction. But what makes normal meat morally problematic doesn't exist in lab meat. A piece of lab meat doesn't have a history as a living, breathing, moving, and -- above all -- sentient creature with feelings. Normal meat does.

Lab meat does raise ethical issues, but they're pragmatic ones like whether the environmental consequences would outweigh the potential for adding more fuel to our meat addiction. I see no fundamental (non-pragmatic) moral problem raised by lab meat.

Again, I doubt the whole thing will work at all. But if producing lab meat from animal cells worked perfectly -- which would have to mean it would be satisfying enough to meat-eaters that they'd reduce the rest of their meat consumption -- then wouldn't it be not just OK, but morally obligatory?

(Photo by Emily Chastain)

* I once had a debate with one of my fellow law review editors about whether you can ever have a capitalized proper noun after an indefinite article ("a" or "an"). Voila! [back]

** I'm planning a series of posts responding to common arguments against vegetarianism like this one. Stay tuned. If you happen to have a favorite anti-vegetarian argument, please send it my way, and I might include it in one of the upcoming posts. [back]


LemmusLemmus said...

As for arguments against vegeterianism, it appears you've already read mine, but I thought I'd remind you.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks for the reminder -- I do want to include a version of premise 1 from that argument, along with my response. I plan to restrict it to common anti-vegetarian arguments rather than the more esoteric or original arguments, so I won't get into the whole 3-premise thing.

Ann Althouse said...

That pig may look cute, but he's a bastard who would kill you if he could.

John Althouse Cohen said...

And your point is?

Ann Althouse said...

That it's okay to murder bastards.

Just kidding.

That cute pictures as argument are suspect.

What's your position of the pro-life posters that show a fetus sucking his thumb?

John Althouse Cohen said...

That it's okay to murder bastards.

I thought you were against the death penalty!

That cute pictures as argument are suspect.

Photos can be manipulative emotional appeals, but they can also be thought-provoking.

Also: arguments that would be unpalatable if you were forced to actually look at what you're talking about are suspect.

What's your position of the pro-life posters that show a fetus sucking his thumb?

It's a valid moral argument.

People (like me) who are morally opposed to eating meat but in favor of legal abortion have an interesting tension between their views. It's a tension, not necessarily a contradiction. (Of course, if I thought it were a straightforward contradiction, I'd have to abandon at least one of those views.)

Ann Althouse said...

"Photos can be manipulative emotional appeals, but they can also be thought-provoking."

Which is why I described the opposite picture, to balance the argument. That was my point, which you asked about.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, there's your answer!

Ann Althouse said...

There should be a blog that's just arguing with pictures. The blogger puts up a picture, and the commenters link to pictures in response. It becomes a huge fight.

dbp said...

John, you say, "...and -- above all -- sentient creature with feelings. Normal meat does."

How do you know that non-human animals are sentient? What sort of scientific experiment could be done which would show that animals are aware of their own existance?

I think most people make the assumption that animals are sentient because they behave in ways we can identify with. Recent neurological research seems to indicate that we feel like we are aware and have control over ourselves, but really our consciensness is more an observer than a controller. Given how little our own awareness contributes to our (much more complex behaviour), we certainly don't need to assume that animals have any. They could be operating entirely on what we would consider a subconscience level.

John Althouse Cohen said...


You're right that I just assumed it without arguing for it. I would like to see commentators be more upfront in assuming that animals are sentient. This is not to say that more neurological research shouldn't be done -- of course it should, for animals and humans.

But I think it would be wrong to perpetually hold back from drawing conclusions about animal consciousness just because some theoretical doubt is always possible. Yes, it's possible to doubt whether animals are conscious. But then, it's also possible, based on the same reasoning, to doubt whether people are conscious.

Theoretically, you don't "know" whether your loved ones -- your spouse, your mom or dad, son or daughter -- are conscious or whether they're automatons.

If they were automatons, you could justify mistreating them -- they couldn't feel anything. But we don't do that. Why? Because we see them demonstrating awareness in the same way we do. Most people observe this in their pets, which is why they actually believe that cats and dogs have awareness and moral status. To not apply this to cows and pigs seems completely arbitrary -- it's just that we rarely see and interact with them, which shouldn't factor into the moral equation.

Of course, I might doubt -- as you mention -- that even I am really conscious or have free will. I disagree with both of those; the philosophical issues are too complex to deal with here. But I don't see what free will ("control," as you put it) has to do with it.

dbp said...

John, you write, "Theoretically, you don't "know" whether your loved ones -- your spouse, your mom or dad, son or daughter -- are conscious or whether they're automatons."

This is not the case, there is an easy way to determine this in humans: For our loved ones, or any human, we can talk to them. In essence, they pass the "Turing Test" every day. Given that every human you get to know does prove to be sentient, it is reasonable to assume others that you haven't met are sentient too.

In the case of animals, nobody has ever conclusivly proven that even one of them is sentient. Why assume any are?

My point about free will was that we barely need to invoke it (as a phenominon) to explain really complex human behaviour. We therefore do not need it at all to explain the relativley simple behaviours observed in animals.

I think it pretty non-controversial to say that one would have to have consciensness before one could have free will--after all, what would free will even mean if you were not self-aware? Being self-aware would have little utility unless it enables an organism a greater degree of control than it would otherwise have. Nature rarely evolves usless functions.

John Althouse Cohen said...

"This is not the case, there is an easy way to determine this in humans: For our loved ones, or any human, we can talk to them."

No, sorry, that doesn't settle it. I talk to my computer and my calculator; I don't think they're conscious. (I'm not saying artificial intelligence is impossible, just that it's not obvious.)

Also, it's plainly false that you can talk to any human and get a response. I can think of many counterexamples to this. I still think those humans who can't respond to me with language are (for the most part) sentient.

Also, people do have minimal conversations with dogs in the form of giving them commands, which the dogs obey.

And I just think you're wrong that no experiments have shown that animals are sentient. I might do a post about this at some point in the future, but for now I think it's obvious enough and accepted enough that I don't find it worth contesting (how many people with a cat or dog would honestly dispute that their pets are aware of them?). Here's one example for now.

(Note that that's only about self-awareness. Just because other animals might not be self-aware doesn't mean they're not aware of anything. But obviously any animal that's self-aware is aware.)

As for your point about free will, I still just don't see the relevance. If animals can feel pain, it's wrong to torture them, period. Whether they can control their own actions might be an interesting issue, but it's not clear to me how it's relevant to cruelty to animals.

LemmusLemmus said...

Self-awareness in chimpanzees. (May take a while to load.)

dbp said...

Okay, you've got me: When I said "talk to" what I should have said is "have a conversation with".

You can't really have a conversation with a computer (yet) or a dog (ever). Both a dog and a computer will respond to commands and will sit quietly while a person talks to them. This kind of talk is not a conversation though. As such, it doesn't demonstrate anything interesting about the computer or dog. Every time you have a conversation with a person they demonstrate that they are self-aware--just by the fact that they can do this thing.
A Turing Test is something any human who isn't sleeping, in a coma, severly retarded etc. can easily pass AND a test no other thing or creature can do.

Chimps are likely to be the most intellegent animals on the planet (after humans) and it is pretty hard to show that even they have the rudaments of self-awareness. Livestock have been bred for generations for lots of traits; growth speed, milk production, docility, etc. Smarts. Not so much.

I think this is kind of a side-note, but worthy of comment..."If animals can feel pain, it's wrong to torture them, period."
I agree with you on this, but probably not for the same reasons you have.

Animals and humans respond to pain in much the same way because we are responding to it on the same instinctual level. On an intellectual level a person could come to the conclusion that the animal, having no (or very limited)self-awareness, is not aware of pain in the same way a human is. But, a person who likes to torture animals does it because the response is so much like how a human would respond. It is right for us to ban torture because of what it does to the torturer. It is a kind of self-abuse, like suicide, self-mulilation, drug abuse and so forth. Plus, lots of people just can't help feeling that animals are "sort of aware" and should be treated humanely just on their own merrits. I think one should err on the side of caution and give animals this level of protection: You can eat them but you have to raise them humanely (an area full of debate) and you cannot torture them.

Summer Anne said...

I don't have time right now to engage fully in this fascinating discussion, but "
In the case of animals, nobody has ever conclusivly proven that even one of them is sentient. Why assume any are? "

Why assume they aren't? Especially if your 'gut' tells you they are? And the talking test doesn't work on deaf-mutes or severly autistic people, does that mean we should assume they aren't sentient?

dbp said...

The Turing test is normally done via computer interface, so this would not be a problem for deaf people.

I think the sentience of severly autistic people is open to debate.

Gut feelings are not devoid of value, but I think they need to take a back-seat to logic and observation.