Monday, 21 March 2011

Zombie Animals

A thought experiment:
The factory farming business sure was profitable, but it caused problems for the owners. The CEO of one company was sick of the death threats against him and his family, the sabotage of farming equipment, and protests, that he decided to do something about it. His solution? To hire a team of artificial intelligence and genetic engineers to zombify his animals.

The artificial intelligence researchers came up with algorithms that would perform the basic functions of what the cows needed to survive and grow. Then the geneticists worked to make the brain develop as a physical representation of these algorithms. When neural activity happened, it merely performed computations like a computer. The cows performed as cows, but now the corporation had philosophy on its side. There couldn't be any question that the cows had an inner life without accepting that a computer does too. And since there was no inner life, the problems that the animal welfare advocates had dissolved.
There are two main kinds of arguments that advocates for animal rights use. There are arguments to do with sustainability, arguments that make the case that animals are a waste of resources and contribute to many environmental problems like climate change and destruction of the wider ecology to grow such creatures. The other arguments are about how meat-eating affects animals. Everything from living conditions and how they are killed, to questions over extending the same principles that we share with other humans.

Not surprisingly it's the latter arguments that really motivate people. We can think of environmental destruction as a negative, but it's hard to get attached to some abstract problem that we don't have any real control over. Refraining from eating chicken won't stop global warming or help the environment, but it will save a chicken from being killed. It's where we can have real impact and it fits right into how our moral systems work.

But there is one key assumption to these arguments, and that's of the capacity for sentience. How do we know that animals have the mental capacities analogous to ours? They just can't tell us, and even if they could it would be no guarantee. We just don't know what it's like to be a cow or a chicken, if it's like anything at all. We could observe their behaviours, examine their neurology, and we still wouldn't know if they have minds or we're projecting one onto them.

The point of this thought experiment is not to comment on whether animals have minds or not, but as a reminder that arguments of this nature have a limited utility. We could very well be projecting our biases onto what we eat, and this is at the expense of fighting for sustainable practices and other problems associated with the meat industry. Hooking into the "yuck" factor is very powerful, and evidentially a great motivator, but they aren't always convincing.

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