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Under Discussion: Animal Dignity and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw lamb cutlet surrounded by vegetables

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

As cultured or lab-grown meat arrives for the first time on consumers’ plates, the ethical arguments surrounding this product will undoubtedly take on new urgency. Some of these arguments revolve around the supposed environmental benefits of cultured meat, or the fact that it is still produced using materials derived from dead animals. However, there is a more radical argument favored by some ethical vegans that I will assess in this column: namely, the claim that cultured meat harms animal dignity.

There is a live controversy in philosophical circles over whether animals can be said to have dignity, but for the sake of argument I will concede that they do. To say that animals have dignity is to say that in virtue of possessing some property — sentience perhaps, or the capacity for flourishing — animals have intrinsic moral worth and a kind of moral status that demands respect and care. Respect and care require taking animals’ interests into account when deliberating about what to do. Perhaps more controversially, taking their interests into account may require assigning weights to those interests equal to the same interests of human beings. For example, Peter Singer argues that to the extent that the pain of an animal and that of a human are of equal intensity and duration, there are reasons of equal weight to relieve the pain of the animal and the human for those who are able to do so.

The argument against cultured meat from animal dignity begins with the empirical claim that the marketing and consumption of cultured meat will tend to promote, or at least preserve, the idea that animals are edible. But, it is claimed, this idea is inconsistent with the acknowledgement of animal dignity. To see this, consider the ethical implications of the widespread consumption of lab-grown human meat. Although kill-free, we might still object to this practice on the grounds that it would cause people to start viewing people as edible, which — much like viewing human beings as commodities — is contrary to their dignity. Similarly, if we grant that animals have dignity, and that their dignity entitles them to equal consideration, then it is contrary to their dignity to view them as edible. And although lab-grown meat does not require the slaughter of animals on a scale approaching traditionally harvested meat, it is still marketed and consumed as a simulacrum of flesh from slaughtered animals. Thus, it is alleged that the resemblance between cultured meat and flesh from slaughtered animals will help perpetuate the notion that animals are edible.

So, the argument against cultured meat from animal dignity looks like this:

  1. The belief that animals are edible is incompatible with the acknowledgement of their dignity.
  2. The marketing and consumption of cultured meat encourages people to view animals as edible.
  3. Therefore, the marketing and consumption of cultured meat undermines or prevents the acknowledgement of animal dignity.
As David Chauvet points out, this argument seems to trade on an ambiguity in the meaning of “edibility.” The dictionary defines “edible” as “suitable or fit for consumption.” On the one hand, for something to be edible means that it can be eaten; inedible things on this definition include things like rocks, nails, and shards of glass. Call this sense of edibility “physical edibility.” But to say that something is edible can also mean that it is to be eaten, or that it ought or to be eaten. On this definition, inedible things might include certain animals or other human beings. Call this sense of edibility “ethical edibility.”

Now, it seems plausible that cultured meat will perpetuate the idea that animals are physically edible. Everyone will know that cultured meat ultimately comes from animals via their stem cells, and that cultured meat resembles and is a substitute for “real” meat. But if this is the sense of “edibility” at play in the second premise of the argument, then for the argument to be valid, it must be the operative sense of “edibility” in the first premise — that it is contrary to animal dignity to see them as edible. However, this claim just seems false. We know that animals are physically edible, so how could this truth possibly undermine our acknowledgement of their dignity? Again, compare this to the case of lab-grown human meat. If lab-grown human meat merely encouraged the belief that humans are physically edible, it is implausible that this belief — which most adult human beings already share, at least tacitly — would undermine our acknowledgement of human dignity.

So, if the sense of “edible” in the second premise of the argument is physical edibility, then that must be the sense of “edible” operative in its first premise, if the argument is valid. But with this sense, that premise is quite probably false, and the argument as a whole unsound.

On the other hand, if cultured meat encouraged the belief that animals are ethically edible, this would constitute grounds for concern for those who believe in animal dignity, since the belief that animals ought to be eaten or are permissibly eaten is arguably incompatible with equal respect for their interests. By the same token, if lab-grown human meat encouraged the belief that humans are ethically edible, this would arguably undermine human dignity. On this reading of “edible,” then, the first premise of the argument is likely true.

However, it is doubtful whether the consumption and marketing of cultured meat really encourages the belief that animals are ethically edible. Cultured meat is often touted by industry spokespeople and the press as the ethical alternative to traditionally harvested meat. This serves to underscore the ethical divide between cultured meat and the traditional variety. Moreover, this marketing strategy would only be compelling to those who are already disposed to believe that animals are not ethically edible, at least under contemporary factory farming conditions. Thus, the vast majority of cultured meat consumers, particularly in the early adopter phase, will be people who reject the ethical edibility of traditionally harvested meat.

So, if the sense of “edible” in the first premise of the argument is ethical edibility, then that must be the sense of “edible” operative in its second premise, if the argument is valid. But with this sense, that premise is quite probably false, and the argument as a whole unsound.

Finally, as Chauvet points out, even if the argument is sound and cultured meat does prevent the acknowledgement of animal dignity, it does not necessarily follow that we should reject cultured meat. The acknowledgement of animal dignity would require a radical transformation of most people’s attitudes towards animals. Very probably such a transformation can only take place in a series of gradual steps, rather than all at once. If cultured meat can make good on its promised benefits to animals and humans alike, it can still serve as a transitional step even if it does not take us very much closer to recognizing animal dignity.

Human Dignity, Capital Punishment, and the Pope

Scrabble tiles spelling out the phrase "Death Penalty" on a gray background

Since his elevation to the papal seat in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly made international headlines with comments suggesting a desire to change Roman Catholic doctrine on matters ranging from marriage to contraception to the nature of the afterlife and more. The beginning of August saw Francis make more than a remark with the publication of a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially labeling the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases.

Continue reading “Human Dignity, Capital Punishment, and the Pope”

Can Someone’s Dignity Be Taken Away?

This post originally appeared November 3, 2015

“Dignity” was invoked no fewer than 10 times by the supporters of gay marriage during the proceedings of the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy used the term 8 times in the majority opinion of the court. He concludes the opinion of the court with these final words: “[The petitioners] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” The take-away message is this: any sort of ban on gay marriage undermines the dignity of those couples and/or of homosexuals in general; anything that undermines dignity is unconstitutional.

Yet, not everyone on the bench agrees that the dignity of homosexuals is in peril with state-based restrictions on marriage. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argued that dignity is not at issue here:

Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away. (Obergefell V Hodges 2015)

This somewhat surprising point was quickly picked up by The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore. During the June 29th episode immediately following the ruling, he asks, “Do you even know what slavery is? Slavery is the complete stripping of humanity and dignity. That’s the point of slavery. When do you think slaves were whipped? Whenever they tried to dare to show any humanity or dignity.”

Although Thomas and Willmore appear to disagree, it’s hard to say what the disagreement is really about. There is something right about what each of them says. Thomas is right to point out that when we say that someone has human dignity, we mean they have intrinsic value and that they are equal in value to other humans. Government policies, even policies permitting slavery, cannot diminish this human value. The intrinsic value of the slave and the slave owner is equal, even if the government says otherwise.

Wilmore’s take also gets something right. The slave holder or the slave state undermines the slave’s human dignity insofar as it fails to treat the slave with the respect that dignity demands. Moreover the slave owner forces the slave into a life not worthy of dignity. The central question is, how can you rob someone of something that is inalienable? If the answer is, “You can’t!,” as Thomas insists, then what are we to conclude about the role that dignity plays in explaining why slavery and discrimination are morally wrong?

Martha Nussbaum suggests that perspectives like that of Thomas’ are based in the ancient Greek tradition of Stoicism. The Stoics believed that all humans have intrinsic dignity on account of their moral rationality and this dignity is invulnerable to the misfortunes of life. No matter what harm or humiliation befalls you, your dignity remains intact. Nussbaum identifies a serious problem with the Stoics’ view of dignity: it lacks normative relevance or force. It cannot be used to condemn certain practices or even explain why certain actions are immoral. If Thomas is right, then the concept of a ‘human dignity violation’ is meaningless.

Contemporary ethicists including Nussbaum argue that this view should be replaced by one that takes into account the extent to which material conditions do impact someone’s dignity.
Contemporary views of the concept of dignity tend to recognize it as having both descriptive and prescriptive aspects. Dignity describes a particular human property (the property of having intrinsic value) while at the same time providing moral reason to refrain from enslaving, degrading, or otherwise denying a person equal rights. Recognizing dignity as having these dual roles allows us to explain the wrongness of certain moral practices we otherwise couldn’t. For example, slavery is clearly a violation of dignity. Denying someone a set of rights enjoyed by all others simply because of their sexual orientation is also, for many, a dignity violation.

Thomas’ view of human dignity is at best parochial. He appears blind to the vital prescriptive role that the concept of dignity plays in everyday discourse concerning our duties to each other. Appeals to dignity underlie our reasons to treat others with respect and explain our moral outrage when governments fail to recognize these reasons. At worst, Thomas provides fodder for denying certain minorities equal rights. This view should be jettisoned in favor of one that provides explanation for why practices such as slavery or discrimination are morally wrong. Wilmore is right to point out that dignity is of central importance in debates concerning the treatment of minorities, especially the treatment of minorities by their government.