The Cyborg Ethics of Eating


Eating is a gruesome affair.

We try to hide it with layers of abstraction, processing, spices, or artisanally prepared sous-vide chef’s creations. We cannot escape it. In order to live, humans must slaughter other living beings in vast numbers.

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We don’t like being confronted with this. We don’t like seeing animals tortured. We recoil in horror when activists document the conditions in factory farms. The more we learn about the suffering of animals, the harder it becomes to justify mistreating and killing them for the crime of being tasty.

Right Diet

This forms the core of the ethical argument for being a vegetarian. Life is inherently valuable; quality of life matters; reducing suffering is a moral imperative; animals are alive; animals are clearly capable of suffering; humans don’t need meat to survive. Therefore: stop killing critters for food.

Yet most of us are not vegetarians. While some humans may be able to face the industrial slaughter of animals with open eyes and a clear conscience, most consumers deal with the problem through squeamishly avoidant ignorance. We don’t think about it. For those that do, there is a whole industry built around assuring customers that, while yes, we did have to kill something at some point for that steak to appear on your table, we want you to know that it didn’t suffer along the way. In order for meat to be ethical, the meat’s former owner must have been allowed to live the good life, and should not have endured undue hardship in the end.

Christmas Eve Feast
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Spare a thought, then, for the poor foal huddling in the underbrush, while slow death stalks him in the form of a mountain lion. Consider the field mouse that twitches helplessly on the claw of an owl, barely alive as she’s carried away to be picked apart. Remember the last stand of a wildebeest, wounded and doomed against a pack of jackals.

Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well.

Jeff McMahan The Meat Eaters The New York Times

However bad the life on a factory farm, at least the end is quick. In the killing fields of nature, death is slow and agonizing. More than one victim has been eaten alive. Our moral strictures are clear on the implications of this. If causing the suffering of others is a morally reprehensible act, allowing the suffering of others cannot be much better. Negligence is no excuse.

Right Action

In a provocative essay for the New York Times, Jeff McMahan argues that we should drive predators to extinction as soon as we are able.

If suffering is bad for animals when we cause it, it is also bad for them when other animals cause it. That suffering is bad for those who experience it is not a human prejudice; nor is an effort to prevent wild animals from suffering a moralistic attempt to police the behavior of other animals. Even if we are not morally required to prevent suffering among animals in the wild for which we are not responsible, we do have a moral reason to prevent it, just as we have a general moral reason to prevent suffering among human beings that is independent both of the cause of the suffering and of our relation to the victims. The main constraint on the permissibility of acting on our reason to prevent suffering is that our action should not cause bad effects that would be worse than those we could prevent.

Jeff McMahan The Meat Eaters The New York Times

McMahan points out that we are already dooming thousands of species to extinction. His proposal requires only that we exercise some restraint and selectiveness on what species we destroy. He acknowledges that some hand waiving is required around how to do this and how to balance the ecosystem afterwards. These are technical problems. They do not weaken the moral argument, they just change the timeline for implementation.

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What about the scope? If you are willing to follow the argument for moral eating from ethical farming, to vegetarianism, to the suffering of predation victims, how much further should you go? What about the suffering of plants? In a follow-up to the first essay, McMahan deals with the vegetable question.

What about the suffering of plants? Again a brief response: plants don’t suffer, though they do respond to stimuli in ways that some have mistaken for a pain response.

Jeff McMahan Predators: A Response The New York Times

Right Logic

McMahan is defending against what he thinks is a reductio ad absurdum. In making this argument he’s in good company. It’s the argument that Descartes and others used to explain away the apparent suffering of animals. It’s also the argument that Thomas Jefferson and others used to explain away the apparent suffering of slaves.

Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection…

Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781 [PDF]

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The course of human history is the long slow process of according a greater number of living things status as moral beings owed rights and protections. For the most part, we’ve worked out that women, people of different racial backgrounds, and non-landowners deserve dignity. The sphere is steadily growing to include animals (beginning with large mammals and the creatures we keep as pets). It isn’t difficult to flash forward and imagine a future régime where the sphere has expanded further still. It isn’t difficult to imagine a world where McMahan’s words are as offensive as Jefferson’s.

Right Knowledge

After all, plants want to live, too.

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Enemies of the plant’s enemies are not the only ones to tune into the emergency broadcast. “Some of these cues, some of these volatiles that are released when a focal plant is damaged,” said Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, “cause other plants of the same species, or even of another species, to likewise become more resistant to herbivores.”

Natalie Angier Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too New York Times

Plants are not passive green backdrops but active and vigorous participants in the ecosystem. This realization pushes back the timeline for McMahan’s predator extinction (it turns out that pretty much everything that’s not a plant is a predator) but it also reframes the question of ethical eating on the part of humans. If the goal is an avoidance of suffering, how to account for the knowledge that plants use chemicals to scream?

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Could it be that the moral duty to avoid meat that’s suffered leads us to a duty to avoid eating entirely? Not right away, of course. I’m not prescribing mass starvation or enforced Jainism; but if we become capable of not eating, could we be required to stop?

Right Augmentation

I’m interested in this question because it’s a striking variation on the themes that drive Quiet Babylon. The cyborg/architect tension is a question of adaptation. Do we adapt ourselves to the environment or the environment to ourselves? There is a moral dimension to choosing between reaching for the thermostat or putting on a sweater when you are cold. There is a moral dimension to choosing between carving an aqueduct or moving when your city is thirsty. There is a moral dimension to increasing crop yield or decreasing the birthrate when your civilization is hungry.

These ethical issues are further exacerbated by a shifting toolkit of capabilities for both changing the body and changing the environment. A growing pool of technology and knowledge brings with it a growing sediment of moral duties. Once we are able to do things, we must decide whether to do them.

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Early cyborg visions were driven by the rocket-age exploratory survival imperative. If we are to live in space, we must work out how to live in space. The possibility of radically altering or eliminating biological function was present from the outset.

No atmosphere in space? One solution: Don’t breathe!

Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline Cyborgs and Space [PDF]

To resolve the terrible problem of a complete lack of atmosphere, Clynes and Kline consider the terrible solution of nuclear-powered air exchangers in place of lungs. Mightn’t we explore cyborg augmentation according to other imperatives? It’s not all that difficult to envision a research program driven by moral goals. How does a Jain with a multi-billion dollar R&D budget approach the terrible problem of eating? Why not cut out the clumsy middleman of mastication and develop new systems for converting energy and nutrients directly into sustenance? Imagine a research program devoted to enabling cyborg Jainism.

No meal without suffering? One solution: Don’t eat!

These questions ask us to think about ethics at a global and epochal scale. As we come to grips with the fact that our civilization is terraforming the planet whether we meant to or not, this seems like an increasingly reasonable move. We are already capable of wrecking the ecosystem and we are hoping to become capable of fixing it. How wonderful might it have been to have had the climate change debate before we started changing the climate. How appropriate, then, to begin considering the wider questions of ethical eating, now.

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Stewart Brand likes to say, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” What kind of sleek, contemporary deity lowers themself to eat and drink? That’s strictly ancient superstitious country-bumpkin stuff. Leave that to the tables of Valhalla and the halls of Olympus. We can do better.

This post is part of Food for Thinkers, a week-long series organized by Nicola Twilley for GOOD’s newly-launched Food hub. You can check out the whole thing at GOOD.is/food where you can join in the comments. On Twitter, follow #foodforthinkers.