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Ethics of Suicidal Cows?

  1. Jun 30, 2003 #1


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    I'm not sure if any of you read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy series of SF books, but in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", there is an interesting scenario which has clearly induced me to take the unwise step of opening a discussion around it. Below is from memory, so flame me liberally for any minute inaccuracies...

    In the book, the protagonist encounters a cow-like lifeform which has been genetically modified to remove the genes regarding self-preservation, so that it actually WANTS to be eaten. The argument was that a sense of sympathy to animals prevented conventional agriculture, but by making the livestock a willing participant in it's own slaughter, the guilt on behalf of the diners is assuaged. The protagonist, on the other hand, is greatly disturbed by this, and refuses to eat the meat, though he was perfectly happy to eat burgers etc (let's ignore BSE for now :wink:) back on earth.

    Now obviously (!) this raises a number of questions.
    1. Is our willingness to eat the meat, kill stuff etc influenced by the desires/feelings of the animal. Ie. is there a difference between killing a "willing" victim, and an "unwilling" one?

    2. Does the logic hold valid if we artificially alter the animal? This does not have to be GM and livestock. For example, is it right to send troops into battle if we brainwash them by propaganda into believing in the righteousness of their cause?

    3. Is there a real difference between "artificially" altering the animal, and the animal naturally learning? Is there a dividing line between providing information and brainwashing? Is intention significant? Obviously the above scenario is a caricature, but do consider...

    4. Is it possible to provide information without a brainwashing element?

    5. Why does the protagonist refuse to eat the meat?

    I want answers! :smile: (Wuli: or good reasons why my questions are meaningless... :wink:)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 30, 2003 #2
    how badly does the cow want to die? would it be suffering if it couldn't live? are you basically asking if mercy killings are justified, even if we were the cause of its suffering?

    no, IMO, this is wrong. if before we brainwashed/genetically modified it, ect. it would not naturally want what we would do to it or make it want to do. (which you can be pretty sure it wouldn't)

    yes, there is a difference. if someone chose death naturally, and were not in any way "suckered" into that choice, they deserve it. and if a soldier wants to run into battle to die, so be it.

    i don't understand what you're asking here.


    and for a more personal note, did you like the book? would you recomend it? i'm always looking for good books.
  4. Jun 30, 2003 #3


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    I think it was written as meaning of existence type thing. In general, the cow was made for the purpose of being eaten, as arguably most organisms are born with the purpose of reproduction.

    I'll play devil's advocate a bit... What do you mean by naturally? And what if the thing is going to happen whether it wants it or not? Can it be argued that it's impossible for all things to have what they want, and so it is justified to alter want to reflect neccessity?

    What I mean is that is there a real situation as choosing death "naturally"? Whenever any decision is made, it is always made on the basis of evidence towards that particular choice. If I was to tell the troops to attack X enemy, knowing there is a high chance of them dying, is it possible to say it completely objectively? Ie. to command them to attack, without suckering them into it? If we look at it all in a rather perverse way, we can say that the soldiers were "suckered" into it throughout their entire life, in their education etc and before that perhaps genetically. How to you decide if the evidence would "naturally" give them the rational conclusion as to whether to attack or not, or whether it is already skewed by the context?

    Sorry if I confused people...

    Oh yes, anything by Douglas Adams is good.
  5. Jun 30, 2003 #4
    mmmm mmm mmm... finger-lickin good

    That answer your question?:wink:

    Seriously though. I think we are genetically wired to to be carnivores. even though we have plenty of healthy alternatives in fruits, vegetables, and synthetically produced food, we still crave meat. Even the nutrients in meat could be replaced with vitamin supplements. But how many dedicated vegetarians do YOU know? It's still part of our base primal instinct to crave meat. If we had no choice, we'd adapt. But given the choice I don't see us giving up the meat anytime soon.

    Slaughtering the cow is a necessary evil. weather it's done with or without coersion makes no difference, as the cow is seen as a lower life form.

    But I'm getting off track here. If the cow were genetically altered it would still be a cow. If I DID have an aversion to cows, changing it into a willing victim wouldn't sway me. Because genetic or not, no being chooses death over life willingly. It may choose death knowing that death serves a purpose,(wow this is one damn smart cow if it knows that.. he needs to go on letterman, not on my plate.. I'll be rich!) Paint it whatever color you like, it's still forced, weather through physical force or brainwashing.

    So your question actually is, would any form of life willingly choose death over life, even to serve a purpose. Again, we're talking brain-washing here. From a human perspective, it's not unheard of to sacrifice onesself in the name of a cause, or out of love or compassion. If someone dies saving someone else's life, does that make it less painful than if they tripped and smashed thier head on a rock? More meaningful, yes, but less painful? I think you've answered your own question.
  6. Jul 1, 2003 #5
    I've actually worked with a few cows, dozens of sheep, and a few thousand chickens. People already train them and cull them for docile and obedient behavior. If the males are too docile they tend to breed less and make worse fathers. An animal that is genetically modified to willing participate in its own death is an oxymoron imo.

    Although a traditional kind of western view of evolution is that fear and some sort of abstract survival instinct are what drive us, the simple truth is positive feelings and goals are more responsible. Survival is a positive goal, reproduction is a positive goal, and the feelings associated with these things are generally much more positive than negative. These positive feelings may not be terribly self-evident and hidden underneigth negative expressions, but exist nonetheless imo.

    Anyway, lets assume for the sake of argument the cows are merely brainwashed into thinking they are dying for a good cause, much like the soldiers you mention. This presents a situation similar to slavery. Often when people attempt to free those who have been enslaved since early childhood they resist, even violently. They have no concept of what it is like to be free. All they know is a disfunctional relationship.

    Cops experience the same phenomenon when intervining in violent family disputes. Often the wife will call the cops when her husband starts seriously threatening to kill her or break bones and put her in the hospital. (I knew one couple who routinely put each other in the hospital this way, but that's another story.) When the cops get there and start arresting the husband, the wife often begins to attack the cops.

    Personally, I avoid getting caught in the middle of such disfunctional relationships. Eating the cows in the story would be to contribute to such a relationship imo. I might talk to the cows and council them, talk to the people who eat them, but I'd never come between them unless I knew I was going to win that fight and somebody would benefit from my intervention. Usually, if at all possible in such cases, I simply attempt to head off any impending violence with a little mild intervention. For example, warning a woman not to buy hard liquor for their lover who I know tends to get violent when seriously drunk.

    The same is true for brain washed soldiers imo. I'm a military brat and have met more serious fascists and starry eyed mindless recruits than I care to remember. I refuse to support such things, but I accept them for who they are and deal with the obvious as best I can without getting caught in the middle. They really appreciate it, even if they never understand where I'm coming from, and it makes me feel good to know I can help ease their pain and suffering.
  7. Jul 1, 2003 #6

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    Wow. From these replies so far, it looks like none of you have actually read these books have you? (except FZ of course...) Thats a shame. Douglas Adams should be more prevalent in our society.

    here is a neat speech he gave just before we were unfortunate enough to lose him forever: http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/index.html

    Is our willingness influenced by its feelings on the matter? Probably less than how much it was portrayed in the book. But if you encoutnered a talking cow, one that displays human like behaviours, desires and emotions, then I guarantee you that you wouldn't want to eat it either, no matter how much it begged you to.

    What they really need to do, is engineer cows which want to be eaten, but look and behave like normal cows. Of course, if they did this, we'd have no way of knowing that they want to be eaten, so we'd just have to accept that they do, and carry on eating them like we do now. For that matter, perhaps this has already been done, and we just haven't been told... All those vegetarians are arogant, mean bastards, depriving cows of their one true wish from life. Death.

    Or maybe not.

    Hmmm..is it right? I always get to this question and thing "Well...it depends on what you want really."
    Not being one to accept objective right and wrong, all right and wrongs are subjectively defined, so is it right to brainwash a soldier and send them into battle? Well, if they are defending your life, and you don't feel bad about tricking someone into doing that for you, then yeah, its 'right' for YOU. If 'you' are a country, and without soldiers running into battle, 'you' (the country) will be destroyed and all of the civilians will suffer, then yes it is 'right' to brainwash soldiers to do this. If you are the soldier being brainwashed, and you don't realise you are, and you end up doing something that you wouldn't have wanted to do before the brain washing episode, then it would be 'wrong' for them to have done it to you....

    And so on.

    If you are an 3rd party country to this war, then, well, i guess it depends on who you want to win, and how you see the behaviours of other countries affecting the civilians within your own country. These factors decide what you (the country) percieve as right and wrong.

    So is it wrong to alter an animal to want to be eaten, just so we can feel better about it?

    Well, were we going to eat it anyway?

    I think intention is probably one of the key significances in most things. But I only think that because generally, the intentions do affect the outcomes. Now if the outcomes are the same, then no, intention means nothing. Reality only cares for results.

    I think 'brainwashing' requires a lot more than informing... Perhaps if you 'brainwash' them into being critical thinkers, then informing them can be more effective!

    Do you mean "Is it possible for someone to recieve information, without it changing them?" No. But you already knew that. Being changed is not the same as being brainwashed. I think brainwashed implies a qualitatively different thing to 'learning' and 'changing your mind' or 'accepting new dogma' etc... So in a direct answer to this question: It IS possible to provide information without any brainwashing element.
    (just give me 3 days, a few chinese torture methods and an electric shock system, and You'll believe me)

    See answer #1. because it has human-like qualities. It talks. It is intelligent. It has emotions. He, like you and me, would feel revulsion at the idea of eating something with these qualities.
  8. Jul 1, 2003 #7
    Well, basically, we made the cows not care about dieing or living.

  9. Jul 1, 2003 #8
    Interesting questions, I don't rember anything about that book other than it was good and I read it once.
    We would all be a non-existent species if H. heidelbergensis decided it was unethical to stalk prey and eat them and that to hand out flowers to tigers was a better life.
    There may come a time when it is no longer necessary to kill other life forms to sustain oneself or enjoy the taste of things, but that is likely far away.
    I seriously doubt that some highier being would judge us to be a tasty treat because we judge other species to be tasty treats at some stage in evolution.
    I'm guessing that what you are really asking is, is it ethical to manipulate other lifeforms in our environment to suit our wants. It depends on if the cows might stage a revolt later on and take over the universe. To me ethics is, in a simply sense, the logical choice of actions that lead to what is good for the one in the long term of following those ethics. As for war propaganda I'll bet there's a strong correlation between the degree of absurdity of a war and the amount and degree of propaganda dispersed. I haven't been around long enough to know for sure but it seems like wars are becomming more like trial cases and that would seem to be an improvement at least.
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  10. Jul 1, 2003 #9

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    One of the intereting potentialities to arise from Stem Cells actually, is the possibility that we may be able to grow "meat" from them, rather than entire animals. Wouldn't that be cool?

    Now, is it ethical to use aborted animal embryos to conduct research to this end? Even if the end, it results in the end of all farming of animals??
  11. Jul 1, 2003 #10
    There already exists one fish culture discovered that continues to grow nonstop as long as they keep it in a nutrient solutions. On another rather rather distasteful note, one human skin culture has been discovered that continues to replicate in nutrients as well. The hope is to use it for burn victims. However, it could be that human flesh is the most nutritious food we can eat. Of course, it has everything a body needs.
  12. Jul 1, 2003 #11

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    That'd be great. I don't think there is anything distasteful about eating human flesh. It's the 'Humans' which it is disstasteful to eat.
  13. Jul 2, 2003 #12


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    Greetings !

    Aah... I should've posted this myself.
    Great thread FZ ! :smile:
    Nah... we've never heard of it...
    I view this as a matter of respect for all life-forms(not
    just humans).
    I think that if an animal/person really wants to be killed then
    we are fullfilling their wishes. Life is about fun=getting
    what you want. We want to eat when we're hungry - so we eat
    and feel good, we want to mate so we do - and feel good,
    we want a lot of money in order to be able to do many fun things,
    so we rob a bank and spend the money - and feel good...

    As for your example, I do not quite see the relevance.
    Anyway, food and war are totally diffrerent things. Everything/body
    has to eat but waging wars is not at all necessary, it's
    just stupid.
    Well, I don't think it's practical to naturally teach
    such stuff. Besides, what respect for life means, as I see it,
    is that you respect the real wishes of the life-form - what
    makes it happy, regardless of how and what specificly the
    life-form thinks.

    "Is intention significant ?"
    No, as long as all relevant life-forms are happy.
    If the info requires the life-form to do something that
    is really against it's natural tendencies then I doubt it.
    In Arthur's (our) society death is regarded as a negative
    concept and the ideal is to avoid it so the animal's wishes
    of being eaten seemed very strange to him.

    Further more, the animal appeared intellegent and talked and in our society the only creatures most of us, unfortunatly, consider intellegent are us - humans, and we regard ourselves in totally different ways compared to other life-forms: our lives are "sacred",
    we have "basic human rights" and so on.
    Well, they are !
    I can tell you that too. :wink:

    Live long and prosper.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2003
  14. Jul 2, 2003 #13
    Lets remember Dr. Korvorkian (sp) and how many times he's been arrested doing what someone asked him to do... as in... assisted suicide.

    The person asking to die is breaking the law in that they are asking someone else to administer the deadly dosages. They may be suffering to the enth degree but... they are illegally seeking a solution to their whoa...... obviously they are not satisfied with hourly injections and spoonfulls of Morphine or better.,

    In the case of the Mad Cow that loves dieing...

    First of all... its going to be a long chain of genes to be removed that will render the bovine willing and even enthralled at the idea of being slaughtered alive.

    Once the long chain of survival genes are removed there will, by all probability, be no cow left... no meat (which is there to ensure that the cow can "RUN AWAY" and so on and so forth... till you're left with a couple of stomaches (ruminary and digestive) in a pile on the stock yard sawdust lumps.

    With these hypothetical conjectures answered I am going to say that your questions are meaningless and merely a product of fanciful thinking that show you are not at the beach... climbing or otherwise heading to a Steakhouse at the time of writing.

    Get a long little doogie.
  15. Jul 2, 2003 #14


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    How about this evolutionary trick :
    The more the cow wants to be eaten the more it will be
    desired and eaten. Thus, the more new cows will be born.

    Makes sense for evolution = makes sense for genes, no problem. :wink:

    Live long and prosper.
  16. Jul 2, 2003 #15
    So, we send all the cows to Dr. Skinner's box... and reprogram them with behavioural psychology... perhaps at birth... that takes care of the lack of muscle (meat) and I also thought that they might not have a skeletal structure with the survival genes gone.

    they would have no stomaches, as these ensure survival... no brain... no nothing...... absolutely no cow...

    so... yes... I'd say we go the route of Skinner (no pun intended!)
  17. Jul 3, 2003 #16
    One might say that there's more than just what someone wants to ethics. Maybe you should consider the effect on the entity's happiness and sadness?

    Parents don't always allow their children to get what they want. They restrict them all the time. And this is generally considered a good thing. This is often because the children will be better off not getting what they initially want.

    Imagine that a child says, "I want to pet the tiger, mommy." The mom denies the child that chance. When the child is older and wiser, he realizes that it would not have been good if he had tried to pet the tiger, and he's glad that his mom restricted him. Was she wrong to do that because it restricted the child's wishes, or was she right because it had a positive effect on his happiness, or something else?
  18. Jul 3, 2003 #17


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    Greetings !

    QC, evolution and genetics is avery complex issues, but I
    think that human brain-power (and greed) can and will allow us
    to do such things.
    Well, that's already more complex. One thing to note is
    that we're talking about stuff one really wants, not just
    some passing craze. As for happiness, that is precisely what
    I am talking about. I realize, of course, that there can sometimes
    be a difference between getting what we want andbeing happy,
    but that is a rather rare case if we're talking about our real

    Live long and prosper.
  19. Jul 6, 2003 #18

    What's the difference? They're just the same thing with different intensities? Is there any mechanism that precludes something that one "really" wants from being harmful to oneself?
  20. Jul 6, 2003 #19


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    Greetings !
    Well, I suppose that a real desire is something for
    which we are willing to sacrifice a lot - like out
    well being, for example.
    Of course, it is geneticly programmed in our brain.
    Of course, exceptions are possible, specificly the exceptions
    that include instincts like acting for the better good
    of society in some cases as well as the complex concept of
    love, which my limmited knowledge about evolution does not
    allow me to discuss.

    Back to the subject of this thread, in my personal opinion
    our genetic structure is basicly a lot of building blocks
    combined to create a "single" whole. Evolution has steered
    these combinations one way (which is basicly just highest
    entropy of atoms and molecules in certain complex conditions
    as those on Earth), but I do not see any fundumental reason
    why we can't steer it in a different direction. AT LEAST, for
    one or just a few generations.

    Live long and prosper.
  21. Jul 8, 2003 #20

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    NO, not the same thing at all.
    The passing phase of a child is something which will provide temporary short term pleasure, at the expense of later pleasure. But the action itself is not the pleasure. The action is a method of reaching 'happiness' amongst many million different ways of achieving happiness.

    now, for the Cow which WANTS to be eaten, it can be assumed that it has been designed so that it has one purpose in life, and that is to be eaten. It has been designed so that its 'happiness', is being eaten. Its ends, is to be eaten. Being eaten is not 'a way to' its happiness amongst many millions of other ways, but instead, being eaten is its happiness.

    I am unsure whether I have expressed this as clearly as it is to me, but maybeu can understand the distinct difference between the two cases?
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