Scully's Dominion and Biotech

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An interesting conservative book denouncing humanity's treatment of animals has appeared, and while it makes many good points about the importance of weighing harm to animals in our moral calculations, the author may have too extensive a definition of harm, which in turn causes him to undervalue the benefits to humans of using animals. In particular, he has trouble distinguishing between physical abuse of animals and their genetic modification.

Mice Are Little Men After All

But before examining the book, here's a related bit of news: The latest development to blur the line between humans and other animals is scientists' announcement that they can use biotech to alter mice in order to make them slightly more similar to humans genetically. The mice will respond to disease in a more humanoid fashion, making them more useful in lab experiments.

To many people, that sounds like good news, but I can't help wondering what environmentalists such as Jeremy Rifkin and Greenpeace will make of it. On the one hand, they're opposed to most biotech. On the other hand, they often point to lab tests on animals (in which the animals receive high doses of chemicals) as the best evidence that chemicals are killing us all. So: would the greens rather use biotech to create more accurate lab tests which, if we take them at their word, they must believe would vindicate their fear of chemicals or would they prefer to avoid doing any bio-tinkering on mice, even if that means muddling along with inaccurate lab tests?

I suspect they'll be against creating any real-life Stuart Littles, and that they're perfectly happy to go on assuming, with or without good evidence, that chemicals and the industrial civilization that made them are evil.

Dominion

We've seen anti-biotech arguments made on both the left and the right, but with the book Dominion, for the first time we see a prominent conservative (a former Bush speechwriter) arguing against biotech experiments on animals on the grounds of harm to the animals.

Matthew Scully, to his credit, breaks the deadlock between animal rights supporters and animal rights opponents by suggesting that one can and should oppose cruelty to animals without necessarily thinking animals have a precise set of rights and without thinking animal lives are as valuable as human lives. Animals are not people, but if we are to take animal suffering at all seriously, argues Scully, we ought to oppose the painful, cramped, assembly-line conditions in which many animals used by humans exist.

While the older "animal rights" formulation of the anti-cruelty argument inspired fanatics and terrorists and brought routine condemnation from moderates and conservatives, Scully is winning fans on the right, getting sympathetic treatment from NationalReview.com and Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine. In addition to this burgeoning "animal right" (Jeffrey Friedman's term), it wouldn't be surprising to find a "libertarianism for animals" developing, since the renowned and recently-deceased libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick devoted a lengthy passage in his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia to the argument that there is a crucial moral difference between swinging a baseball bat at empty air and swinging a bat into the head of a cow just for thrills.

Like Scully, Nozick makes the case for kindness to cows without attributing human-style rights to them. In fact, he suggests that strict rights might be appropriate for humans while a cruder utilitarianism is appropriate for animals (as long as they aren't made miserable, their "rights" and freedom aren't terribly important, since they don't make rational, long-term plans or value their liberty in quite the same way humans do).

That makes sense, though I would add that the happiness humans derive from animals, especially from medical uses, might outweigh the moral significance of their suffering. Scully and Nozick (if he were still with us) would probably respond that we ought to seek ways to avoid setting animal pleasure and human pleasure at odds. Roughly speaking, if humans can learn to love salad as much as chicken, we needn't suffer if we stop using chickens, while the chickens may become much happier. Instead of denouncing all uses of animals in equally harsh terms, there may be a case to be made that some uses of animals could be abandoned while others, more essential to human life, continue.

Benefits to Humans Matter, Even If We Weigh Costs to Animals

Where Scully goes farthest astray is his claim that human respect for animals must entail not tinkering with their genetics, since to tinker is to treat them as machines (like the animals on conveyor belts in factory farms). Bio-tinkering robs them and us of dignity, Scully argues, even as we feign Godlike power. If animal suffering is the real issue, though, it's hard to see why an alteration in genetics is harmful (assuming the resulting animal isn't deformed in some way that causes it pain). A rat is as indifferent to the recombinant DNA technology that created him as he is to his natural grandparents. Scully, like Greenpeace, should be told that some tinkering, especially for medical research purposes, can create benefits that vastly outweigh any demonstrable harm to our furry brethren. Similarly, to treat dogs with love and respect we do not have to stop selectively breeding them just stop beating them, underfeeding them, etc.

The anti-cruelty approach of Scully and Nozick strikes me as far more reasonable than the usual animal rights formulation or the anti-speciesism argument (that a boy and, say, a fish are of equal moral weight). Their views are somewhat at odds with anti-speciesism arguments, animal rights arguments, and the radical animal protection arguments of people like Peter Singer, whose book Animal Liberation helped start the modern animal protection movement back in the 1970s.

For most animal rights defenders, only a completely hands-off approach to nature is ethically acceptable, while most critics of animal rights regard animals as resources to be utilized without any qualms, like so much tungsten or salt. Perhaps Dominion will help usher in a more moderate approach to the issue, one in which neither animal suffering nor the vast benefits humans derive from animals need be ignored.