Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

July 19, 2006

Who’s Repugnant Now?

by @ 2:23 PM. Filed under Biotechnology, General, Healthcare Politics, Medical Science, Research Issues, Theory

There’s apparently a bit of a dust-up brewing among vegetarians over the possibility of “cultured meat” – the lab-grown muscle tissue slabs that generations of sci-fi writers have assured us we’ll all be chomping in the near, sterile and tasteless, future. Such products are now nearing marketability, but the super-veggies and the mere-veggies can’t agree on whether they’re a green and ethical end-run around farmed animal flesh, or an unholy combination of Matrix-style technoslavery and the horror that is ham sandwiches (I’m not making this up).

What’s interesting to me about the debate is that it mirrors so precisely – down to the same buzzwords and some of the same quotes - the liberal/conservative debate over biotechnology and human enhancement. Intriguingly, in this case some of the more radical vegetarians are taking the position of the most conservative bioethicists. But there is also a pro-technology position that takes very much the same attitude toward engineered meat products that most bioethicists do to stem cell research or body enhancement, and brings in people from across the contentious spectrum of animal-rights advocates.

I find that heartening. It also provides a fascinating look at the ways certain divisions between attitudes and values can play out across relatively small, as well as grand-scale, issues of biotechnological impact.

 Traci Hukill laid out the anti-Soylent Green position in an article in Alternet:

“Cultured meat,” . . . is supposed to save us from the execrable pollution and guilt of factory farms while still allowing all 6.5 billion of us to stuff our gullets with ham sandwiches whenever we want to. . . .

The concept is as simple as it is horrifying. Take some stem cells, or myoblasts, which are the precursors to muscle cells. Set them on “scaffolding” that they can attach to, like a flat sheet of plastic that the cells can later be slid off of. Put them in a “growth medium” — some kind of fluid supplying the nutrients that blood would ordinarily provide. “Exercise” them regularly by administering electric currents or stretching the sheets of cells mechanically. Wait. Harvest. Eat.

It seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future, the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism.

Hukill admits there are lots of reasons to support the program: elimination of agricultural waste,  less pollution of other kinds, less fuel and fertilizer wasted on animal feed,an end to disease transmission by food animals, an end to routine use of antibiotics in livestock (which forces bacteria to adapt faster, making the antibiotics useless for humans), and – for those who care – an end to the use of actual animals as food stocks. Hukill counts the VP of PETA as an enthusiastic Matrix-muscle booster (“[it's] the best thing since sliced bread”). But she still harbors . . . reservations:

What a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish (especially the “exercising” of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks). All cultivation is a form of enslavement, however benevolent or necessary, but harnessing the manic energy of stem cells takes that dynamic into a realm where the side effects — the “equal and opposite reaction” promised by Newton — play out perilously close to the life process itself. If synthetic fertilizer, which seemed like such a great way to boost plant fertility, can create a dead zone the size of Maryland at the Mississippi Delta, wiping out a totally different link in the food chain, who’s to say what would come of overexploited RNA or mitochondria? . . .

Here’s an idea: Instead of safeguarding our appetites and engineering our meat, let’s safeguard our meat and engineer our appetites. What if real animals were raised humanely and in sustainable numbers, so that their meat cost more — maybe even a lot more? What if people only ate it on special occasions? What if, instead of deciding that the most important thing was to be able to satisfy every idle hankering for a cheeseburger, humanity assessed the resources and made a rational decision about protein acquisition that did not involve divorcing its food source from the life cycle? What if we took the invisible hand of the market, which has all the self-discipline and foresight of a 14-year-old boy, off the job and put a grown-up in charge?

Exploited mitochondria? (I hope Hukill never finds out how much work her own mitochondira are doing for her; she’d have to go on strike against her own liver.) All cultivation is enslavement? Presumably she means only animal cultivation – or perhaps not. But, apropos of our ongoing thread on personhood, how much does it take to qualify as a ”slave”? (And as simplistic solutions go, raising the price of meat so people will rarely eat it is worse than most. We can raise the price of oil to encourage energy conservation, because oil is a fundamentally limited commodity that depends on a lot of government manipulation to keep its price artifically low for Americans. But meat is cheap to raise in the US, so prices will never get prohibitively high unless we restrict the market by, essentially, making meat illegal. Simply asking people to pay a lot to limit their own intake of something they can have as much of as they want at low price is hardly a realistic market strategy.) Hukill gives a sense of not really having a firm grasp of her own issue.

Dale Carrico, of Amor Mundi, takes her to task (and gets huge kudos for his post title: “When Meat Culture Meets Cultured-Meat ”):

I share Hukill’s view that factory farms are an environmental, health, and moral atrocity. And I also strongly share Hukill’s skepticism about techno-hype in general, and am especially skeptical of the endlessly reiterated corporate-futurist promises of painless techno-fixes which are almost inevitably and disastrously doomed to failure without real education, agitation, organization, regulation to articulate technodevelopment in democratic and emancipatory directions.

But it seems to me that the conclusion one should draw from these shared views is that we should educate and organize to ensure the regulation of lab-grown cultured meat-making will in fact ameliorate the environmental, health, and moral atrocity of factory farming. For Hukill it seems that the better course is for vegetarians to make fun of meat eaters for liking to eat sandwiches with meat in them. I will admit that I cannot see any reason to agree with Hukill that this is a strategy likely to achieve the outcomes we both would claim to desire.

This is a key insight – not simply that it is more politically feasible to court meat-eaters than to antagonize them, but rather Carrico’s implicit point that the issue is the relative impact cultured meat and farm-raised meat have on the issues that comprise much of the case for “ethical vegetarianism”: environmental damage, healthiness, and so forth. On the merits of these technical questions, it’s perfectly possible (in fact, it seems likely) that the cultured meat will turn out to be a good idea. And if so, the kind of shuddering revulsion Hukill manifests is not merely impolitic, but counterproductive. If cultured meat is healthy and environmentally sound, then there’s no reason not to eat it. Creating a panic over it will only slow its adoption by the vast majority of the population the vegetarians have to address (the politics angle), while distorting the debate over vegetarianism by turning it into a contest between the most appealing foodstuffs rather than the most healthy, green, or moral.

Carrico also notes the emotivist tone of Hukill’s opposition:

Of this process, Hukill then says: “The concept is as simple as it is horrifying.” I have to admit, this is an utterly confounding moment in the article for me. Why exactly is the process described here “horrifying”? Is Hukill comparably horrified by the process through which one makes seitan, blue cheese, or beer? Or, not to put too fine a point on it, is Hukill not incomparably more horrified by the “process” through which animal bodies are turned into sausages and steaks?

Cultured meat-making “seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future,” writes Hukill, “the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism.” The proposal that cultured meat-making nudges us onto a slippery slope that will lead us ineluctably to the enslavement and slaughter of living human beings is apparently commonplace, despite its conspicuous curiosity. Consider that the cultured meat-making process doesn’t require the death or enslavement even of the nonhuman animals for whose flesh the cultured-meat would provide an alternative for corpse-eaters. Through what argumentative contortions, exactly, would one find oneself turning from the delighted contemplation of one’s cultured-meat sandwich to entertaining as a good idea that one might scoop up some fellow human beings to put them on a bun? Just how is that argument supposed to happen, again? . . .

Hukill is right, then, to follow the hopeful technoscientific best-case scenario with the more cautionary note that “[t]here are a couple of serious problems with cultured meat[.]” Astonishingly, though, for me is that these “problems” for Hukill return us to the supposed “fact that people seem to find the idea repellent.”

But surely it is clear by now that only some people react this way. Can Hukill offer readers a reason to identify with the prejudices of the hostile over those of the hopeful here? . . .

[F]or Hukill, cultured meat-making is just “a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish.” Especially traumatizing, apparently is “the ‘exercising’ of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks.” Perhaps it would be kinder to leave these matters to Hukill’s therapist.

Certainly, this reminds us what we should do with those bioconservatives who claim there is some special “wisdom of repugnance” (whether Hukill’s aversion to a stream of electricity pulsing through organic matter in a petri dish, Leon Kass’s aversion to the very idea of cloning, even if it comes to be a safe and desired procedure, Margaret Somerville’s aversion to gay marriage, or any random racist’s aversion to an interracial kiss). Shudders of repugnance must simply never trump democratic deliberation and contestation, the offering up of arguments to one’s fellow citizens to educate, agitate, and organize and so facilitate what come to be more generally desired outcomes.

Precisely.

I am grateful to Carrico for making this point. And it is interesting, as I said, to see this issue – the embrace or rejection of “repugnance” as a moral fact – arise between advocates of the same broad ethical position, whose take on policy questions or the details of their respective moral beliefs about vegetarianism appear to differ only very slightly – certainly to a tiny degree within the entire spectrum of opinion that exists on those questions.

I normally find Kassian emoting to be characteristic of conservatism, perhaps due to its tendency to valorize “the good old days”, partly due to its lack of persuasive arguments. It’s not as if lefties aren’t prone to what James Randi calls “woo-woo” thinking (two words: “New Age”), but they usually give arguments for their policy positions. The dangers of the alternative are illustrated by Hukill; her language - exploited mitochondria, “Matrix-style barbarism”, “horrifying”, “chilling”, “nightmarish”, “repellent” – is as unhinged as that of Leon Kass in his “repugnance” at the “catlike activity” that characterizes the horrifying, chilling, nightmarishly repellent spectacle of a someone eating an ice-cream cone. And the consequences of this kind of sloppiness are similarly apparent, and equally in parallel with the corresponding errors of conservative emotivism. Hukill agonizes over the “slavery” of cultivating cells in laboratory hardware. In this she, clearly unwittingly, rings in two bizarre and manipulative tropes of the anti-choice right: cells as moral persons, and abortion as an analog to slavery. Neither withstands scrutiny; in fact, both are deeply offensive to the actual persons involved in the cases in question (to equate an embryo with an adult woman is to equate an adult woman with an embryo – an act of literal infantilization that reaches the sine qua non of misogynist dismissiveness; likewise, to equate an embryo to a slave is to equate African-Americans to embryos, invoking in just the same way the centuries of condescension and dehumanization that made slavery possible). Adducing such nonsense as a defense (however clumsy) of progressive values and policies only gives it credence, while removing the debate over those policies from its rational grounding.

That leaves a bad taste in my mouth – worse, I suspect, than a vat-grown Frankenham sandwich ever would.

 UPDATE: Now this is messed up.

6 Responses to “Who’s Repugnant Now?”

  1. Pejar Says:

    All I can say is yup. I’m an ethical vegetarian, and to be honest I am a bit squeemish about this manufactured meat. But I’m not going to let that last fact be anything more than a careful hint to my ethics. There is nothing created here with interests, so ethically I can’t see the problem (barring envoronmental issues etc).

  2. zombieprincess Says:

    i’ve done my fair share of scifi reading and the first book that popped into my mind was the space merchants by frederick pohl. not a nice description of cultured meat, but hey, what can be expected from a dystopian novel?

    i for one welcome the idea of cultured meat. i live in a town where there are feedlots and a slaughterhouse. aside from the fact that it is damn guilt-inducing to see those bovines standing around in their own crap whilst waiting to become dinner, both endeavors smell.really.really.bad. sometimes, they smell worse than the sugarbeet processing plant. p-u!

  3. carey allen Says:

    As a vegetarian, I see no ethical problem with cultured meat. Going back to Bentham’s question of “do they suffer?” it seems clear there is no suffering involved. But there is a possible health issue, namely that mass cultures of meat containing a prion disease could result in epidemics among the consumers. This is something that could be dealt with, but only if there is a strong government oversight.

  4. Keith Says:

    I too happen to be a vegetarian, and while I find the morality issue quite stimulating, I choose to be a vegetarian almost exclusively for health reasons. I don’t miss meat, with the exception of a chicken craving once every three months or so. Yet as a scientist I am both excited and delighted to hear that humans will soon overcome our primitive violent animal-killing mannernisms through technology… Indeed, this seems to be the clear next step in making human society less barbaric. Imagine a world where the carnivorous can still eat meat, yet without all the animal-killing.

  5. M T Says:

    I’ve been waiting for this for years – bring it on!

    I’ve had two relatives sister and mothjer convert to vegan-ness and even the sister – two undergrad degress in science, and doctorate spout idiotic nonsense about how early man/hominids were veggies, etc when all evidence is that we were always bloodthirsty fucks (me biochem in univ)…

    I too for moral reasons was a veg for awhile but found the lack of aggreesion one gets from being a veggie to be counter-productive to succeeding in this world- argue what you want, butI’m not forcing you to eat meat so save it fanatic, please.

    HOWEVER, I would absolutely love to be able to eat merat withput killing some poor hapless animal.

    Those against this are FANATICs akin to anti-abortionists – oh yes you are, just because you are “kind” to other species does not make you saintly or better than the rest of us – you smug veggie loon. Hey sorry my folks are just that.

    Peace out!

  6. M T Says:

    sorry for spelling errors – insanely beautiful evening out herei n BC and I wanna get out,,,,

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