Monday, April 02, 2007

Teleology or instrumentalism or why sheep will one day rule(paca)

A sheep does come into this somewhere.

Where to start? First off, do people know about the sheep that are made of 15% human cells? If not, here's one article. They inject human cells into a sheep fetus and this causes human cells to grow as part of the sheep. The goal is to create a sheep with human organs, which could then be used to save human lives.

My feelings are mixed on this, but generally I'm not a fan. Why?

Because we are changing the very body, from the inside out, of another animal for our purposes. Let's ignore possible safety issues such as silent viruses, which are viruses that are harmless to animals, but could be spread to humans in which they not be harmless. Once you get over the squick factor, is there anything really wrong with this? After all, we eat animals. We grow them specifically so that we can slaughter and consume them, so why not also grow them in order to save human lives? There's no difference, right?

I think there is.

In theory, an animal that you are eating for food is an animal. It does things. It leads it sheep or cow life. And then one day, it gets killed. But up until that time, it was just a sheep being a sheep. But, in this case of the homosheepians, you aren't letting a sheep be a sheep and then slaughtering it. You are creating some animal that would never exist, and I can't imagine it would be the same as a real sheep. After all, a sheep's liver is different from a human liver for a biological reason. So the hybrid sheep isn't a sheep that you kill when you need it. Instead, it becomes a simple tool, a biological machine, that is created for you and dies for you. You are taking away its sheep-ness.

Of course, things are never so clear cut. For instance, farming is by definition taking an animal out of its environment and raising it for a purpose. Combine this with breeding, which is essentially a genetic selection process, along with the increased ability of scientists to change the genes of an animal directly, and is farming for food really all that different? It becomes a very shady line.

I agree these do become difficult decisions, but we are able to make some of them within reason. For instance, I'd rather eat a pig that walked around in a pen for its time on earth than one of these guys:

And here's the companion article (from a blog) that goes with it.

I was pretty affected by this picture. Enough so that I'm starting to learn about local producers of animals and whether or not there is such thing as free range pigs, etc. I think one of the reasons people react so negatively to treatment like this is not simply the possible physical pain caused by the confinement. I don't know if pain is caused. It's also that a pig which spends its entire life like this is no longer a pig. It isn't living a pig life at all. It's just a chunk of flesh waiting for us.

N was browsing through our Joy of Cooking yesterday and hit the game-cooking section with venison, quail, grouse, and even bear. We then got into discussing who we knew growing up that hunted and our venison consumption and all. As I was riding to school today, I decided that I'd rather eat venison, if I'm going to eat meat at all, than eat those poor pigs, even though deer are a lot cuter to me. After all, most deer are wild and the deer population is abundant in many places. We should all be eating game, as the deer got to be a deer.

OK, this next is going to be an odd transition, but it's the same moral issue to me. I'm one of those weird people who periodically has more moral worries about stem cell research than at least early term abortions. Why? Because with abortions, the fetus was not created to serve someone else. It was created either intentionally for itself or unintentionally. But it is not an instrument to aid us. And then, since a woman does get to control her own body, she gets to choose whether or not she wishes to keep the little human fetus inside of her or not. (I don't mean this is all an easy issue for me, or clear, but that's where I am right now.)

With embryonic stem cells, there's at least the possibility that you could be creating a human fetus, not just on accident or through disregard, but solely for the purpose of harvesting it. That troubles me. I did some Wikipedia reading and the fact that embryonic stem cells come from the blastopore, which is a small bundle of barely differentiated cells, helps me accept the research. It also helps that at the moment most stem cell lines are created from embryos resulting from fertilization treatments. But I have a feeling that this latter fact won't last if stem cells do pan out. If you can cure heart disease with stem cells, there will be a demand for millions of the things, which is going to create a demand to grow them specifically for this purpose. (This is of course utter speculation based on nothing.) I am not a big fan of test tubes of blastopores that are only there to have cells removed from them and discarded.

A final thought. You may have noticed that many of these issues revolve around using other living items - sheep and human fetuses - for the purpose of saving others. I guess I just don't feel that the virtue of helping a person with a sickness overrules all else. We can't re-engineer other living things just to add a little more time for us. But maybe I am wrong even on this. Perhaps when someone I love desperately needs an organ, I will forget all of my silly arguments here and strap the sheep embryo up myself. However, just as there is a reason that we don't let the families of murder victims decide the fate of the murderer alone, we may not want to let all questions of medical ethics be decided by those who would give up the world to save the one they love.

In short, purpose matters. Intentions matter. When we don't even allow a sheep to be a sheep or a human embryo to be an embryo, but instead reduce them to instruments for our benefit, we are walking on thin moral ice.


Sammy Jankis said...

Wow, I watch Fast Food Nation yesterday and today I read this blog article. I'm firmly in the camp of "I don't want to know the process of how my food got bred, raised, processed and delivered to me". Still, I've been feeling very queasy lately.

Taking your argument about injecting Human DNA into other animals one step further, couldn't it be considered killing a partial human when the sheep is harvested? This sort of stuff just doesn't jive well with my inner sense of correctness.

pacatrue said...

Agreed, Sammy.

We did just eat yummy organic beef today which claims it is only from cows who got to walk around in a pasture eating grass. I don't know how perfectly we can stick to this. After all, if I want fajitas at Chilis I have no idea where the meat came from. But we're giving it a whirl.