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Vol. 8, No. 1 - June 1996


Bernard E. Rollin

Editor's note: The Bioethics Program at Iowa State University sponsored its annual Fall Bioethics Colloquium on 10 October 1995. Our guest was Dr. Bernard Rollin, professor of philosophy and of physiology and biophysics at Colorado State University. Dr. Rollin, director of Bioethical Planning at CSU, has written and spoken extensively on animal rights and genetic engineering. He developed the first course offered in the United States on ethical issues in intensive agriculture for animal science students. Portions of his lecture at ISU were drawn from his book, The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

It is not inconceivable that as agriculture becomes more responsive to social pressure regarding confinement of animals, it will seize upon genetic engineering as a strategy for better fitting animals to their environments in order to reduce suffering. I do not, however, consider this likely in the foreseeable future. Given the embryonic state of knowledge of the connections between genes and behavior; indeed, given the similarly limited knowledge of behavior, pain, suffering, and so on in animals; and given the extreme likelihood that psychological dimensions relevant to welfare, happiness, and unhappiness are related to a multiplicity of genes, I do not think we can look forward to the day when we will produce chickens that are ecstatic in battery cages.

Suppose, however, this were possible--would it be morally wrong to do so? Obviously, it would be much more simple and reasonable to change the husbandry systems to fit the animal than to change the animals to fit the systems. If, however, ex hypothesi, there were only two choices--either leave the animals as they are now, to live under conditions that do not meet their needs, or change their needs so they no longer suffer from the frustration of their fundamental urges--it seems clear that changing the animals is the lesser of the two evils. This, of course, assumes that we would be wise enough to change the animals in such a way as to indeed accommodate their interests without creating new interests that were thwarted or otherwise generating new suffering. But if we could do this, why would it be wrong? At least the animals would be happy, or closer to happy, or at worst not suffering. Admittedly it would be repulsive to do so, but I believe that is an aesthetic revulsion, not necessarily a moral one. A moral component would enter into the discussion only if there were hidden costs to the animals, or if such modifications made us more prone to treat animals merely as tools for human use rather than as "ends in themselves" whose fates matter to them as well as to us.

In my view, caring enough about the animals to try to engineer them so as to be happy, even if ultimately an exploitative stance, is still an improvement over our current mind-set, which develops animals to suit our desires, and, in the case of pets, our whims, with total disregard for the effect on the animals.

(Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press. Any reproduction, copying or distribution of this material in any format, beyond single copying by an individual for personal use only, is a violation of copyright and such uses must first receive the written consent of Cambridge University Press, 40 West 20th Street, N.Y., NY 10011.)


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