Conservation of Welfare, and Ethical Issues in Genetic Engineering of Animals

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014
Grace Lee, Judy Illes and Frauke Ohl (eds.)Ethical Issues in Behavioral NeuroscienceCurrent Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences1910.1007/7854_2014_279

Telos, Conservation of Welfare, and Ethical Issues in Genetic Engineering of Animals

Bernard E. Rollin 

Department of Philosophy, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1781, USA



Bernard E. Rollin


The most long-lived metaphysics or view of reality in the history of Western thought is Aristotle’s teleology , which reigned for almost 2,000 years. Biology was expressed in terms of function or telos , and accorded perfectly with common sense. The rise of mechanistic, Newtonian science vanquished teleological explanations. Understanding and accommodating animal telos was essential to success in animal husbandry, which involved respect for telos, and was presuppositional to our “ancient contract” with domestic animals. Telos was further abandoned with the rise of industrial agriculture, which utilized “technological fixes” to force animal into environments they were unsuited for, while continuing to be productive. Loss of husbandry and respect for telos created major issues for farm animal welfare, and forced the creation of a new ethic demanding respect for telos. As genetic engineering developed, the notion arose of modifying animals to fit their environment in order to avoid animal suffering, rather than fitting them into congenial environments. Most people do not favor changing the animals, rather than changing the conditions under which they are reared. Aesthetic appreciation of husbandry and virtue ethics militate in favor of restoring husbandry, rather than radically changing animal teloi. One, however, does not morally wrong teloi by changing them—one can only wrong individuals. In biomedical research, we do indeed inflict major pain, suffering and disease on animals. And genetic engineering seems to augment our ability to create animals to model diseases, particularly more than 3,000 known human genetic diseases. The disease, known as Lesch–Nyhan’s syndrome or HPRT deficiency, which causes self-mutilation and mental retardation, provides us with a real possibility for genetically creating “animal models” of this disease, animals doomed to a life of great and unalleviable suffering. This of course creates a major moral dilemma. Perhaps one can use the very genetic engineering which creates this dilemma to ablate consciousness in such animal models, thereby escaping a moral impasse.

Teleology Telos Mechanistic explanationAnimal husbandryGenetic engineeringTransgenic animal models

1 Telos

Expressed in very simple terms, a metaphysics is a set of concepts in terms of which we understand the world; a frame through which we organize what we mean by reality. Far and away, the most long-lived metaphysics that ever held sway in the Western world is Aristotle’s teleology , which saw the world and what took place in the world in terms of ends, functions, purposes and what Aristotle called final causes. This worldview reigned supreme in the Western world from the time of Aristotle until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, almost 2,000 years. In Aristotelian terms, biological organisms represented the model according to which all other organisms and processes in the physical world were to be understood. Just as was the case with living things, all natural and artifactual entities possessed a telos, or final cause or end or nature or purpose, which determined its function, and thereby its nature. Rather than biology being subsumed under mechanistic causation, efficient causes, even putatively “dead matter” had a nature or unique function by which it was to be explained. The function of a rock, for example, was, unless impeded, was to fall toward the center of the Earth, which was also the center of the universe. Hold a rock in your hand, and you feel it’s tendency to move downward if all obstacles to such movements are removed.

The science of biology, for Aristotle, was very simply understanding how living things fulfilled the functions of any living thing—sensation, nutrition, locomotion, growth, and reproduction. The sum total of how an organism does so is constitutive of its telos or nature. Every living thing was to be explained in terms of how it fulfilled its telos. Telos , in modern terminology, is roughly what is encoded in an animal’s genetics, as expressed in its normal environment—the pigness of the pig, the dogness of the dog, what common sense recognizes as “fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly.”

The fact that nature was to be explained teleologically or functionally did not presuppose that the functions in question were consciously adhered to by an organism, or consciously designed, even though Aristotelian teleology was adopted by the Catholic Church to fit a theological purpose, namely that all of nature had been designed by God. We can explain the sharp edge of a knife by reference to what a knife does, namely cut, without assuming consciousness on the part of the knife. In a similar manner, we can explain the building of dams by beavers in terms of such dams increasing the likelihood of catching fish without assuming either that beavers have a conscious purpose in mind when they build, or that they were consciously designed to do so; evolution by natural selection is perfectly adequate as an explanation, especially of the latter.

Seeing the world in terms of functions and purposes, particularly seeing living things, is totally compatible with ordinary experience and a common sense view of the world. (For this reason, Aristotle is often viewed as the greatest philosopher of common sense.) But, in the seventeenth century, when both common sense and Aristotelian philosophy were challenged by the solidly mechanistic scientific revolution of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, teleological explanations were dealt with a serious blow, at least as far as scientists and philosophers were concerned. As is well-known, Descartes strongly challenged the world shown to us by our senses, and assumed to be real by common sense. Less well known, but even more destructive to commonsense and teleological explanations was Spinoza’s vicious (and ultimately unfair) attack on thinking in teleological terms. Since teleology was completely rejected by adherents of the scientific revolution, it significantly waned in importance in modern thought, except for the Catholic Church and other theologians.

Teleology , at the hands of these theologians became equated with what is today known as “intelligent design”—evidence of a superior power who planned the world in an intentional, carefully designed manner. While teleology certainly fits for explaining artifactual creations, that is not necessarily its role as an explanatory model. Consider the adrenal gland: from an explanatory perspective, the adrenal gland exists to alert the body, and prepare for “fight or flight.” Suppose a human infant dies before the adrenal gland has a chance to function. It is still reasonable to explain its presence in the body in terms of that role, even if it is never, in fact, actualized. Similarly, with the reproductive system, it is there to effect reproduction, even if the person lives a celibate life, and never in fact even attempts to reproduce. The same holds of animal telos—a pig, for example, embodies a certain set of functions constitutive of its life as a pig, even if it dies at birth; a certain set of potentials, which are real and explanatory regardless of whether that set is ever actualized, to use Aristotle’s clear principles. There is nothing mystical, or even theological, in invoking telos as the blueprint or template for a certain form of life, actualized or not. The fact that the Scientific Revolution restricted itself to mechanistic explanations is totally irrelevant to the question of the utility or coherence of teleological explanations. As we shall show, telos has recently emerged as an explanatory concept for animal ethics and for genetic engineering.

One may in fact, look at the situation in the following way: If one is scientifically oriented in the mechanistic, post-Renaissance sense, and thereby believes with Descartes that biology is and should be reducible to the physics of particles, one may eschew functional or teleological explanations strictly in favor of mechanistic, efficient causes. On the other hand, those who view the world in terms of common sense, not only do have any problem with teleological causation, but actually are compelled to see the world that way. Imagine trying to have a pet dog living with you and not being able to say “He wants to go out.” Historically, however, understanding our companion animals was of little significance compared to understanding agricultural animals. Domestication of animals is more than 10,000 years old, and understanding these animals’ telos represents both a cause and an effect of domestication. We could never have domesticated them if we failed to understand at least the basics of their telos, and as we domesticated them, we changed their teloi to suit domestication, making them more docile and tractable, and more dependent on us.

2 Violation of Telos

For virtually all of the history of domestication (99 % plus), we successfully managed the animals we employed for food, fiber, work, and transport by understanding their natures and respecting their teloi, in what has been called “the ancient contract” between humans and the animals that made civilization possible. It is arguable that the development of human civilization was directly dependent on the creation of a secure and predictable food supply. Such a food supply freed people from the uncertainties and vagaries of depending on hunting and gathering, and enabled the establishment of communities. Predictability regarding food was assured by the development of both plant and animal agriculture, which operated synergistically. Cultivation of crops and plants secured human ability to depend on (barring catastrophes of weather) foods of plant origin, and on a steady and local source of animal feed. Animal agriculture, in turn, provided a source of labor for crop production, as well as a predictable reservoir of animal protein for human consumption. The secure food supply ramified in the ability to develop manufacturing, trade, commerce, and in Hobbes’s felicitous phrase, the “leisure that is the mother of philosophy,” construed in the broadest sense as speculative thought, science, technological innovation, art, and culture.

Presuppositional to the development of both agricultures was the concept of sustainability, i.e., assurance that the conditions and resources necessary to them were indefinitely renewable. As children, many of us learned about balanced aquariums. If we wished to keep a fish tank where the fish lived and we didn’t want to keep tinkering with it, we needed to assure that the system in question was as close to a “perpetual motion” machine as possible, a system that required little maintenance because all parts worked together. That meant including plants that produced oxygen and consumed carbon dioxide, enough light to nourish the plants, or rather plants that thrived in the available light source, water that was properly constituted chemically, scavengers to remove wastes, and soon. When such a system worked, it required minimal maintenance. If something were out of balance, plants and animals would die, and require constant replacement. The fish tank aims at being a balanced ecosystem, and thus represents a model of traditional approaches to cultivation of land, wherein one sought to grow plants that could be grown indefinitely with available resources, which conserved and maximized these resources, and which would not die out or require constant enrichment. Hence, the beauty of pastoral agriculture, where pasture nourished herbivores, and herbivores provided us with milk, meat, and leather, and their manure enriched the pasture land in a renewable cycle.

Cultivation of land evolved locally with humans. If one did not attend to the constraints imposed by nature on what and how much could be grown in a given region, the region would soon cease to yield its bounty, by virtue of salinization, or depletion of nutrients or overgrazing, or insect infestation. Thus, over time, humans evolved to, as one book put it, “farm with nature,” which became, like animal husbandry , both a rational necessity and an ethical imperative. Local knowledge, accumulated over a long period of trial and error, told us how much irrigation was too much; what would not grow in given soils; what weeds left standing protected against insects; where shade and windbreaks were needed, and so on. Thus, accumulated wisdom was passed on—and augmented—from generation to generation, and was sustainable, i.e., required minimal tweaking or addition of resources. The genius of agriculture was to utilize what was there in a way that would endure. If the land did not thrive, you did not thrive. Traditional agriculture, then, was inherently sustainable; by trial and error over long period of time it evolved into as close to a “balanced aquarium” as possible.

Not surprisingly, precisely isomorphic logic applied to sustainability in animal production. The maxim underlying continued success in rearing animals was good husbandry, which represented a unified synthesis of prudence and ethics. Husbandry meant, first of all, placing the animals into the optimal environment for which they had been bred, and where they could maximally fulfill their telos—their physical and psychological needs and natures. Having done so, the husbandman then augmented animals’ ability to survive and thrive by watching over them—by providing protection from predators, food during periods of famine, water during times of drought, shelter during extremes of climate, assistance in birthing, medical attention, and generally ministering to whatever needs the animals had. So powerfully ingrained was this imperative in the human psyche, that when the Psalmist searches for a metaphor for God’s ideal relationship to human beings, he can do no better than seizing upon the conceit of the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd serves as far more than merely a herdsman, but more as a guardian and protector of the sheep under his aegis:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul. (Psalm 23)

We want no more from God than what the Good Shepherd provides for his flock. As we know from other passages in the Old Testament, a lamb on its own would live a miserable, nasty, and short life by virtue of the proliferation of predators—hyenas, raptors, wolves, bears, lions, foxes, jackals, and numerous others. With the care and ministrations of the Shepherd, the animal lives well until such time as humans take its life, in the meantime supplying us with milk, wool, and in the case of some domestic animals, the labor that became indispensable to the working of land for crops.

The power of this symbiotic image cannot be overestimated in the history of Western civilization. In Christian iconography, for thousands of years, Jesus is depicted both as Shepherd and as lamb, a duality built into the very foundations of human culture. The pastor, a word harking back to pastoral, tends to his flock; the members of his congregation are his sheep. And when Plato discusses the ideal political ruler in the Republic, he deploys the shepherd-sheep metaphor: The ruler is to his people as the shepherd is to his flock. Qua shepherd, the shepherd exists to protect, preserve, and improve the sheep; any payment tendered to him is in his capacity as wage-earner. So too the ruler, again illustrating the power of the concept of husbandry on our psyches.

Animal agriculture was indispensable to the subsequent development of society and culture. Husbandry agriculture is the ancient contract that was presuppositional to that entire evolutionary process. In one of the most momentous ironies in the history of civilization, this ancient contract with the animals, as well with the Earth, in terms of sustainability, contained within it the seeds of its own undoing. It was in virtue of a secure and predictable food supply that humans could proceed with trade, manufacturing, invention, and the general flourishing of culture.

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