Lab-grown meat could let humanity ignore a serious moral failing

Lab-grown meat could let humanity ignore a serious moral failing
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Lab-grown meat is being hailed as the solution to the factory farming of animals. The downside of factory farming for the cows, chickens and pigs themselves is obvious enough. But it is also bad for human health, given the amount of antibiotics pumped into the animals, as well as for the environment, given the resources required to provide us with industrial quantities of meat.

By contrast, lab-grown need have none of these costs. Once the technology is perfected it will be indistinguishable in taste and texture from real meat, and will be cheaper to produce and purchase.

There is, however, a major problem with lab-grown meat: a moral problem.

Factory farming causes billions of to live and die in great pain each year. Our response has been almost total indifference and inaction and, despite the rise of vegetarianism and veganism in some quarters, more animals are killed today for food than ever before. This does not reflect well on us, morally speaking, and history will not remember us kindly.

The moral problem stems from the fact that we will likely switch over to lab-grown meat because it is cheap, or thanks to its benefits for or the environment. That is, we will do it for our own sake and not for the sake of animals.

You might be wondering why this is a problem – providing that the harm to animals comes to an end, what does it matter why we do it, or how this reflects upon us, morally speaking?

Some philosophers (for example, Kantians) do think that there is something important about acting for moral reasons, independently of whether there are any bad consequences of our not doing so. Whether or not these philosophers are right, I want to point out a different kind of reason to do the right thing in this sort of case: one having to do with consequences.

Lab-grown meat could let humanity ignore a serious moral failing
Around 100,000 chickens have been killed since you started reading this article. Credit: MENATU / shutterstock

If we switch over to lab-grown meat just for our own sake, and not for the sake of animals, then the morally dubious part of us that is responsible for our inaction on factory farming will remain intact. If this part of us has other bad consequences, then we might have lost a valuable opportunity to confront it and avoid those outcomes.

Identifying the exact part of our moral makeup that allows us to shrug at factory farmed animals is tricky. One dimension of the answer is a lack of interest or curiosity in the condition of these other beings, or perhaps an obtuseness as to what it is really like to be an animal. Another is a complacency or foolish deference to, or trust of, those who are culturally in charge, a preparedness to silence or turn away from qualms one might have, or to blindly repeat poorly thought out justifications offered to us by our cultural leaders.

We can then consider the other bad consequences these traits of ours might have. There are many. Some are micro, having to do with, say, our everyday relations or interactions with each other. The deepest and richest human relationships require a curiosity about what others are like, and a willingness to listen and understand. And the very best parts of human culture – great art, great literature, and so on – will not be fully accessible to someone who is so insular.

Other consequences are macro, having to do with how we are likely to respond to other major moral crises. People who are indifferent, thoughtless, complacent, lacking in curiosity, prepared to silence or turn away from qualms, blindly follow orders, and so on, may be more likely to ignore other groups who are in great need. Such people may also be more vulnerable to manipulation by morally unscrupulous leaders. In some circumstances, they could even be seduced by fascism.

Moral crises can't be solved by technology

This worry is not unique to lab-grown meat. It applies to many technological or economic "solutions" to moral crises. Suppose, for example, we develop a clean and cheap , and it is adopted, halting . This would be terrific in one way. But there would also be an important danger: the part of us that had failed to take action on climate change for moral reasons (our cavalier attitude to the plight of future generations or those most affected today) would be preserved. Failure to address this flaw in us could leave us open to committing other atrocities, or harming ourselves in various ways.

My point is not that we should reject . Given the scale of the harm we do to animals in factory farming, and the unlikelihood of ending it for moral reasons, we should probably embrace these cow-free burgers and pigless sausages. The benefit to animals here likely outweighs the risks of papering over this morally dubious part of us.

Yet if we switch purely for selfish reasons we risk other bad consequences, for ourselves and others. Moral crises like factory farming and climate change should be seen not only as major threats to others, but as opportunities to address or deal with troubling parts of ourselves.


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Dec 14, 2017
Best just to keep on killing and eating animals then...

Dec 14, 2017
And here I thought my moral dilemma was whether I should put cheese on my hamburger...

Dec 14, 2017
We factory-farm animals for food NOT because we are evil, but because we have 7 billion mouths to feed and we evolved to like meat, and it is the only way to get that much meat that we can currently afford.

Humans appear to be the first predator species on this planet that gives ANY thought to the well-being of their prey. Has this author ever seen wolves rip apart a still-living deer, or even watched a cat with a mouse? We at least make SOME effort to kill our prey 'humanely'.

Many people pay extra for free-range chicken and beef, often because they don't like the suffering of factory farms. And many more would if they could afford to.

Yes, we could do more, but at least we have started, so IF it reflects on us morally speaking, it reflects WELL on us, not poorly.

Dec 15, 2017
We have moral dilemmas about exploiting or killing animals, but still we allow unborn children to be killed. We are trying to patch a scratch on a broken foot.

Dec 15, 2017
Whether or not these philosophers are right, I want to point out a different kind of reason to do the right thing in this sort of case

Let's be very clear here: the 'right' thing (i.e. the thing that is totally natural) is for animals to kill and eat each other. However much some philosophers want to deny this - we are not something other than 'animal' just because we use animal/human dichotomy in our language.

Morals are some things we have *chosen* to adhere to (because morals is what keeps societies stable - and humans are social animals). Morals have no meaning outside this very limited context.

That it would benefit us to eschew meat for moral reasons alone is not in doubt (because it means we have develop our empathic abilities) - but there is nothing 'right' or 'wrong' about it.

If we cannot figure out a way to increase empathy in coming generations without resorting to animal pain as a teacher then we're more stupid that I would imagine.

Dec 15, 2017

Let's be very clear here: the 'right' thing (i.e. the thing that is totally natural) is for animals to kill and eat each other. However much some philosophers want to deny this - we are not something other than 'animal' just because we use animal/human dichotomy in our language.


I don't think you can apply scientific reductionism into philosophy. Philosophy works with concepts that are simply inaccessible to science. Frankly, it would be as if a child would try to prove modern mathematics is wrong by counting on his fingers.

Dec 15, 2017
Man I've seen a lot of comments here that say "the author of this paper doesn't know what they're talking about," but this is the first time the comments are right.

Dec 20, 2017
Philosophy works with concepts that are simply inaccessible to science.

If so then these concepts are just made up/arbitrary. But I argue that they are not. Philosophical concepts (particular morals) do have an effect in the real world. We didn't make them up because they are 'good' but because they are useful to us (as individuals, as societies and as a species)

Everything that has an effect in the real world is accessible to science. Otherwise you just create an unresolvable conflict.

Dec 20, 2017
"But it is also bad for human health, given the amount of antibiotics pumped into the animals"

-Uh huh. Is this scientific certainty or a cue as to the authors political leanings?

"Factory farming causes billions of animals to live and die in great pain each year."

-NATURE causes billions of animals to live and die in great pain each year.
the 'right' thing (i.e. the thing that is totally natural) is for animals to kill and eat each other
We ARE animals. Nothing about the human animal that says we aren't supposed to kill other animals for food or protection.
Philosophy works with concepts that are simply inaccessible to science
-Right. Which is why it's equivalent to religion ie bullshit.

Philosophy has spectacularly failed to explain anything. This is apparent as science uncovers the real reasons why we think and act the way we do.

There is NOTHING unphysical about the world. And so it is all explainable scientifically. The big lie of philosophy and religion

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