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Aust J Prof Appl Ethics. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2006 March 6.
Published in final edited form as:
Aust J Prof Appl Ethics. 2005 June; 7(1): 11–21.
PMCID: PMC1389614

Being queasy about reconstructing animals

Although a considerable number of people are concerned about biotechnological manipulations of living beings they usually find it hard to explain what exactly they think is wrong with it. When being asked on which moral grounds such a manipulation (or what forms of manipulation) can be reasonably opposed they are at a loss for an answer. They just feel that it is wrong but can’t say why. Hence it is easy to dismiss their concerns as unfounded. Scientists and philosophers tend to believe that biotechnological manipulations of living beings can only be wrong if there is some suffering involved. Some would even say that it is only the suffering of human beings that is morally relevant. The suffering of animals, then, simply does not count. Yet there are things that can be done and are done to living beings, including humans, which, even if they do not involve or produce any suffering, are still considered to be morally wrong by a large proportion of the public. Among them are, for instance, changing the nature of living beings by means of genetic engineering in order to enhance their health, or, more likely with animals and plants, their utility, or impairing their ability to live autonomously, or unduly instrumentalizing them.

Often when such concerns are expressed, they are rejected on the grounds that there is no rational basis for them. They are claimed to be irrational, to ‘make no sense’ (Gibbard 1990). Accordingly, they are not regarded as proper moral concerns at all. But if they are not moral concerns, what kind of concerns are they? One answer often heard is that these concerns are at best aesthetic ones which therefore, being a matter of mere taste, can be justly disregarded. It is this two-fold claim which interests me in this paper. Is the distinction between proper moral concerns and ‘merely’ aesthetic ones really sound in the context in which this distinction is applied? And can we really make no (moral) sense of the uneasiness which many people feel about biotechnological manipulations of living beings, regardless of whether, as a consequence, those beings suffer or not? While dealing with these questions, I will not attempt to give a precise definition of the aesthetic as opposed to the moral. Rather, I will use the term ‘aesthetic’ in the same wide and admittedly vague sense in which it is used in the arguments that I will discuss. Since nothing seems to hinge on it, a precise definition is not necessary. What is relevant here is the rhetorical function the term ‘aesthetic’ acquires in claims that certain common concerns are not proper moral concerns – in spite of the fact that people who share those concerns think of them as moral. The question is not whether those concerns are aesthetic but whether they are merely aesthetic in the sense of being not morally considerable.

Eliminating suffering

Human beings have always manipulated and exploited nature, which, as such, is unobjectionable and does not differ much from what other living beings do to survive (Rowlands 2000). After all, it is simply a matter of survival to learn about the many ways in which the environment can be put to use, and to act accordingly. With the rise of genetic engineering it has apparently become even easier to create the exact world we want and need for our survival and well-being. Thanks to this comparatively new technique we can now do more than merely exploit animals as we happen to find them, or at best adapt them slowly and patiently to our needs by conventional breeding. Instead we can literally redesign them in a very short time in such a way that they serve our various needs more effectively. Thus genetic engineering is applied - or its application is urged - in order to enhance the productivity of farm animals to a hitherto unknown extent (e.g. GM super salmons), but also to deliberately create animals that produce medically important proteins for use as ‘pharmaceutical factories’. Others serve as experimental ‘models’ of human diseases, or produce organs for xenotransplantation (so called ‘spare parts factories’) (Bowring 2003, 119–122).

It is clear that in all these cases we are not primarily concerned with the good of the animals we are using. We do not think about what is good for them but rather what they are, or might become, good for. On the other hand, we could, of course, use genetic engineering also to actually help animals, for instance to cure them from genetic diseases or to enhance their disease resistance. We might even help them to suffer less or, ideally, not at all from the conditions human society forces upon them. Thus genetic engineering is not intrinsically objectionable in terms of animal welfare considerations. This position has been prominently adopted by Bernard Rollin (1995). Considering it unlikely that we will simply stop using animals as much as we possibly can, Rollin argues that from an animal welfare point of view it is justified, or even morally required, to effect genetic changes in the animals such that we can reduce the pain and suffering they would otherwise endure. If, for instance, we could, by means of genetic engineering, create cattle without horns (so we would not have to dehorn them later, which is quite painful to them) or eliminate the drive to nest in chickens kept in battery cages, then why should we not do it? What could be wrong with removing a source of suffering? Hence Rollin is convinced that, if ‘changing the animals by genetic engineering is the only way to assure that they do not suffer (…), people will surely accept that strategy, though doubtless with some reluctance.’ (1995, 175)

However, presenting the alternatives like this seems to anticipate the outcome. If you already take it for granted that there are no other alternatives than either to let the animals suffer or to modify them, you will feel that it is hardly justifiable to oppose the modification. But I don’t think we can or should take it for granted that changing the animals’ environment is not possible or realistically to be expected. It is like asking, Would you rather let the Iraqis attack the US with weapons of mass destruction than invade Iraq by military force and take these weapons from them before it is too late? The consequence of putting the question this way is that no other alternatives are seriously considered.

Moreover, why should people feel reluctant to use genetic engineering if it is only in the interest of the animal? The main reason, says Rollin, is a certain ‘queasiness’ which is at root aesthetic, i.e. not moral: ‘The chicken sitting in a nest is a powerful aesthetic image, analogous to cows grazing in green fields. A chicken without that urge jars us.’ (1995, 175) It is odd, however, that Rollin, while on the one hand asserting that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with changing an animal’s nature (or telos, as Rollin prefers to call it), on the other hand says that it is ‘certainly a poor alternative’ to alter the animal instead of its environment (1995, 171). He even calls it ‘the lesser of two evils’ (1995, 192) - the other evil being the pain the animal would have to endure if we did not alter it. But if there is nothing morally wrong with changing an animal’s genome and through it the animal’s physical appearance and structure of behaviour, then why should this be classified as ‘a poor alternative’, let alone an ‘evil’? If the revulsion we (or some of us) experience here is, as Rollin believes, purely ‘aesthetic’, then from a moral point of view this option is not poorer or less desirable than the other (and most certainly not ‘the lesser of the two evils’).

Yet how exactly do we distinguish here between purely aesthetic concerns and purely moral concerns? What Rollin apparently means by ‘aesthetic’ is that our revulsion does not rest on any beliefs concerning the situation the animal is objectively in, but rather on the fact that this situation or the animal itself is somehow unpleasant to our senses. Our revulsion is a matter of taste and does not involve any kind of moral judgement. If, however, it is just not as pleasant to see a hen in a cage as to see it sitting in a nest, can and should we then not ask why it is not so pleasant? Does our revulsion really have nothing to do with the situation the hen is objectively in? Are we, as Rollin suggests, just being ‘queasy’? How can we be so sure? After all, to many of us, it at least seems as if we had a genuine moral concern here, as if changing an animal’s nature so that it no longer suffers from the bad conditions it is forced to live in, were actually something wrong, i.e., something we simply ought not to be doing. How can we, without begging the question, say with confidence that our concerns, though they seem to us to be moral concerns, are not moral concerns at all, but ‘merely’ aesthetic?

To distinguish so sharply between moral and merely aesthetic concerns gets even less plausible when we consider another of Rollin’s suggestions. Rollin believes that the common practice of using animals as models for human diseases is, at least potentially, so beneficial for humans that it is extremely unlikely that we will ever give it up. Since, however, this practice involves a lot of suffering for the animals being used which, in order to study the disease properly, have to be kept alive for quite a long time while anesthesia can only be applied for a comparatively short time, it is morally not sufficient to merely change the animals’ subjective experience. If we really care for the animals’ welfare we ought rather to try to eliminate their consciousness completely by, for instance, removing or destroying their cerebral cortex (1995, 205). We might even some day be able to genetically engineer them in such a way that they are already born decerebrate and with the diseases we want to study. Assuming that ‘the capacity for genetically engineering models for all manner of genetic and other diseases is imminent, and that the research community will forge ahead in creating such models’, decerebration is, according to Rollin, not only ‘the only viable way to control suffering’ but also in perfect harmony with the moral principle of conservation of welfare (1995, 205). Thus the moral principle Rollin applies and which seems to be the only one he accepts as a valid moral principle ends up as something like this: Avoid making sentient beings suffer but if you can’t (or don’t find it convenient to) avoid it by any other means then you should kill it, either physically if you no longer need it (1995, 197), or mentally, if you still need its living body for your purposes. This, however, is surely a curious moral principle and certainly not in accordance with our moral intuitions, or at least with what we take to be our moral intuitions.

With Bentham, Rollin obviously assumes not only that what morally matters is whether animals can suffer, but also that this is the only thing that matters. According to this view, genuine moral concerns are concerns about good and bad subjective experiences. All other concerns are, whatever else they might be, definitely not moral concerns. That is, the norm that is accepted here does not permit any other concerns to be included in the moral domain (cf. Gibbard 1990, 7). But why should we accept this norm? If we ask ourselves how we know that inflicting pain and suffering on other living beings ought to be avoided or at least requires moral justification, we can hardly say more than that is how we feel about it. Thus, the grounds for our belief that wilfully inflicting pain on others is bad does not seem to be much different from the grounds of our ‘queasiness’ about reconstructing animals according to our needs and in such a way that they become something quite different from what they, as it may seem to us, by their very nature are meant to be.

A claim like this does, of course, need some backing which I would like to provide through a discussion of H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr Moreau. My reasons for choosing this slightly unusual method of logon didonai by analysing the contents of this particular novel are not only its subject matter (the intentional remodeling of living beings) but even more so the implicit deconstruction of a normative system of moral rationality which is believed by its proponents to be entirely autonomous and free from any aspects that might be denounced as merely ‘aesthetic’. What a good novel like Wells’s can do – and sometimes better than a purely conceptual analysis, is to show the inadequacy of conceptual distinctions. In this case, it is the distinction between moral concerns and so-called aesthetic ones which are shown to blend seemlessly into one another (cf. Blackburn 1998, 12). Never mind that it is ‘fiction’, what counts is that it gets to the heart of the matter.

The ethics of the matter

The Island of Dr Moreau tells the story of the amateur biologist Edward Prendick who has the misfortune to become stranded on an island which is inhabited by the notorious vivisectionist Dr. Moreau, the alcoholic physician Montgomery who assists Moreau, many animals captured in order to be researched upon, and finally the strangest human beings Prendick has ever encountered and which he is at first not able to make head or tail of. He just knows that there is something wrong with them and that he can hardly bear the sight of them, a feeling that he shares with the crew of the ship on which he travels to the island together with Montgomery and one of those disturbing creatures. On being asked by Montgomery how this creature, which he mistakenly takes to be human, strikes him, he answers: ‘He’s unnatural. … There’s something about him. … Don’t think me fanciful, but it gives me a nasty little sensation, a tightening of my muscles, when he comes near me. It’s a touch … of the diabolical, in fact’ (1923, 42). Now this revulsion which Prendick describes here is surely a good example of what Rollin would classify as an aesthetic reaction, for Prendick does not seem to think that the creature is suffering under its condition, or at any rate this is not what gives him this ‘nasty little sensation’. In fact, there is no belief whatsoever underlying his aversion to the creature. He has no clear reason for being revolted: he just is. It is only later that he begins to suspect the truth: ‘Suddenly, as I watched their grotesque and unaccountable gestures, I perceived clearly for the first time what it was that had offended me. (…) Each of these creatures, despite its human form, its rag of clothing, and the rough humanity of its bodily form, had woven into it, into its movements, into the expression of its countenance, into its whole presence, some now irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast.’ (1923, 50). Although at first he misinterprets what he sees, thinking that Moreau has somehow changed humans into animals, he soon finds out what is really happening, namely, that Moreau has in fact reconstructed the captured animals in such a way that they resemble, or have become, human beings. Learning, however, that the creatures which have struck him so strange are in fact former animals turned halfway into men, does not lessen his abhorrence. On the contrary, it gives his initial, instinctive reaction a certain justification. He understands now why he has felt the creatures to be abhorrent, and incorporates this knowledge into his perception of them. Yet his feelings about them remain unchanged. In a discussion with Moreau about the justifiability of his experiments he still thinks of the beast-people, as he calls them, as ‘abominations’ (1923, 95). They are, in fact, regular monsters which perfectly fit the definition given by Brittnacher (1994) in his seminal study on the aesthetics of horror. For, according to Brittnacher, a common denominator of all beings designated as monsters is their ‘excessive deviation from the norm of physical integrity. In the physical extremity of the monster, the human and the animal spheres overlap and the idea of an animal kingdom which is neatly organized in species is being revoked’ (1994, 184).1

Now it is interesting to note that, when Prendick first arrives on the island he wonders why Moreau and Montgomery are being so secretive about the kind of research they are undertaking there. This irritates him since he suspects Moreau to be practising just the usual vivisection of animals which Prendick considers, however painful it might be for the animals involved, ‘especially to another scientific man, (…) nothing so horrible (…) as to account for this secrecy’ (1923, 40). This statement, which expresses the common conviction of many scientists that for the sake of knowledge or human good we are justified in subjecting animals to a great deal of suffering and pain, echoes a remark made earlier by Moreau himself, when he tells Prendick that what he is doing on his island is ‘nothing very dreadful really – to a sane man’ (1923, 35). Moreau, however, knows what he is doing, and what he takes to be ‘nothing very dreadful’ is not only the infliction of pain on the animals during the process of reconstructing them but also the whole business of creating beings that are half human and half animal. Thus, while Prendick considers the infliction of pain justifiable – though also seeing the need to justify it – he is by no means prepared to accept the creation of hybrid creatures such as the beast-people inhabiting Moreau’s island.2 So if his reaction is really purely aesthetic, as Rollin presumably would have us believe, then it is more strongly grounded and much harder to overcome by considerations of utility than the ‘proper’ moral concerns he has about the pain the animals have to endure during the process of reconstructing them. Of course, Moreau himself believes that neither the infliction of pain nor the outcome of his experiments need to be justified by the prospect of any good resulting from it. When Prendick asks him for a reason and for a justification for inflicting all this pain Moreau replies that

it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions of sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain (…) is such a little thing. A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that, save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained – it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur. But the laws we feel our way towards … (1923, 92–93).

And later he adds:

Pain! Pain and pleasure – they are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust … You see, I went on with this research just the way it led me. That is the only way I ever heard of research going. I asked a question, devised some method of getting an answer, and got – a fresh question. You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator, what an intellectual passion grows upon him. You cannot imagine the strange and colourless delight of these intellectual desires. The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem.

To this Prendick can only reply, rather helplessly, that, whatever Moreau might say, ‘the thing is an abomination’ – a declaration which moves Moreau to the laconic comment: ‘To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter’ (1923, 94).

This passage strikes me as important for two reasons. First because of the remarkable extent to which Moreau’s more than a century old description of the scientific method, including its conceptual transformation of fellow-creatures into problems, is mirrored by the language and the practice applied by many present day scientists working in the field of biotechnology.3 And second – more relevant to the object of this paper – because of the emphasis that is put on the – again in a loose sense - aesthetic origin of our conviction that inflicting pain on another living being is morally wrong. ‘So long’, says Moreau, ‘as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you’, your mind is not truly opened, not fit to realize that pain is really a little thing, not of much importance, not to be considered as an obstacle to scientific research. Prendick himself acknowledges the truth of Moreau’s remark when, earlier in the novel, he overhears Moreau vivisecting a puma who cries horribly while being tortured. Prendick reflects: ‘The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe – I have thought since – I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.’ (1923, 44, my italics). Thus the abstract knowledge that some other creature suffers pain does not press itself on Prendick in such a way that he would object to it. It is only when he actually perceives the pain with his senses and gets bodily struck (nerves set quivering) by what he perceives that he cannot help but acknowledge the wrongness of the deed. This hints at how very much our moral evaluation of situations and actions depends on, first, to what extent we are capable of a direct inspection of these situations and actions,4 and second, whether what we thus inspect tends to makes us sick with revulsion. ‘We cannot really think that injustice is bad’, writes Mary Midgley, ‘if it does not at some point sicken us.’ (1981, 92) But if this is true, then what makes us realize that an action or a situation is morally wrong is exactly what Rollin would classify as an aesthetic quality or reaction. In other words, the conviction that pain is an evil ultimately rests, as Stephen Clark has pointed out, ‘only on our dislike of it.’ (1997, 65). In this respect it does not differ from the conviction that it is wrong to create animals with a reduced or even annihilated capacity for suffering, or hybrids of animals and human beings, or of different species in general. Hence the distinction between purely aesthetic concerns and purely moral concerns breaks down.5

The aesthetic dimension of ethics

To insist that, if our actions do not bring about any pain or suffering they cannot possibly be considered to be morally wrong, is simply question-begging. Even if we do not agree with someone who thinks that certain actions are wrong regardless of any suffering involved, this does not justify our assumption that their disapproval of these actions is not a moral one at all. There are quite a few people who feel that decerebrating a living being in order to experiment with it without violating the principle of conservation of welfare, is even worse than just hurting it and making it suffer. It is certainly arguable whether these people might not have the wrong kind of moral intuitions but that is not to say that their intutions are not moral in the first place but rather ‘aesthetic’. If there is a kind of disapproval that is really purely aesthetic it would be one where it is only the sight (or sound, or smell) of something which bothers us or is abhorrent to us. In the cases we have been considering, however, it is for most people the action itself, or the results of this action, to which they object. It is not that they don’t want to see it done or don’t want to think about it being done, but that they simply want it not to be done. Mark Packer (1996) has shown that many of our moral intuitions are aesthetically grounded in so far as their only justification is the vague but often strong feeling of shock or outrage we feel when we contemplate certain actions, and that those feelings are commonly regarded as being sufficient to justify a condemnation of these actions: ‘We are inclined to disallow the actions in question because there is something, perhaps we cannot say, exactly what, that is simply offensive about them.’ We need not be able to explain why it is offensive to us, but this does not make our judgement less valid. Consider the (fictional, but not entirely unlikely) case Packer describes:

Within the next few decades, genetic technology may develop to the point that it will be possible to manufacture sides of beef and chicken parts entirely from DNA, without the need to create or raise living animals. Potentially unlimited quantities of T-bone steaks and poultry wings might emerge in just a few days or weeks out of dishes of genetic material that is extracted painlessly from individual cows and chickens. Since no animals would be killed and none would suffer any physical or psychological harm, this process may appear to provide moral license to even the most committed animal rights activist to eat meat. In the absence of suffering and death, there would seem to remain no sound ethical reason for vegetarianism.

But an animal rights activist might rejoin to this proposal with a rather arresting suggestion. If it were possible to manufacture animal meat this way, then human limbs and organs might also be brought to the deli counter by means of a similar process of DNA cultivation. Why should the food industry restrict its products just to non-human animals? Higher profits are possible with this expanded array of delicacies, as consumers might be willing to pay more in order to enjoy the naughty thrill of cannibalism without any pangs of conscience. Nobody would suffer any pain, and no one would be killed. In short, there would be no harm. (1996, 58)

I think Packer is quite right to conclude that most people would, inspite of the fact that there wouldn’t be any harm done, vehemently resist such a proposal. If so, our reaction might be described as aesthetic insofar as it is caused ‘by nothing more than characteristics that are entirely inherent in the behavior or objects themselves’ (1996, 61), but must also be described as moral insofar as it is an expression of the conviction that far more is at stake here than just a violation of individual taste. Instead we feel very strongly that this is something, whatever the consequences might be, that ought not to be done, period, not by ourselves and not by anybody else. This might appear irrational, since we cannot properly explain what’s wrong with it, and a ‘sane man’ like Dr. Moreau would certainly feel quite differently about it, but then moral convictions are, after all, always non-rational, not in the sense of being contrary to reason but rather in the sense of being ultimately not based on or guided by any process of rational decision-making (Hauskeller 2001). This is not to say that our moral convictions are independent of our knowledge of the situation in question. For us, our moral convictions follow naturally from our beliefs concerning the facts of the situation, but others may have different moral convictions following just as naturally from the same factual beliefs, and to some – those who have a completely objective mind (if there is such a thing) – there does not follow anything at all in terms of moral value. Thus the entirely ‘sane man’ does not have any moral convictions at all. That is what those who demand a ‘rational analysis of facts’6 fail to realize. The difficulty here is obviously how a ‘rational analysis of facts’ could ever decide the question of whether it is wrong or right to create transgenic animals. After all, there is no one way of ‘ably presenting’ the facts. Every presentation of facts is bound to be either coloured by the presenter’s values, or to be neutral in respect to their moral evaluation. For this reason, if we do not feel strongly about the rightness or wrongness of an action or a state of affairs, we know at best what others expect us to do, and not to do, and hence what is generally considered to be right and wrong. In other words, it is not a moral, but a social knowledge we have, a knowledge of certain facts (namely what is valued by others) but not about what actually is valuable. David Hume thus had every reason to claim that all true morality depends on our sentiments (1739/40, III, II, V). If the sight or contemplation of an action or situation did not elicit any emotion in us, if we didn’t feel any indignation or outrage whatsoever, then we wouldn’t even know that there is something wrong with it. When those parts of our brain which support our emotions get damaged or functionally destroyed, we are still conscious of the moral norms considered to be valid in the society we live in but we no longer feel obliged by them. They have lost their binding force on us (Damasio 1994). To have an emotion always means to evaluate the situation one is in or is confronted with (Solomon 1980). Furthermore, having no emotion means not to evaluate the situation. It is tempting to argue that if someone says that she just can’t bear the thought of humans eating human flesh even if it is especially created for that purpose and nobody is killed or hurt for it, or of animals being deliberately engineered without their cortex or reduced in their capacity to suffer under the circumstances they are forced to live in, then she doesn’t have a good reason for the claim that it is immoral to do so. If, however, we can bear the thought easily then what good reason could we possibly have to assert its immorality?

It all depends on what we mean when we say we cannot bear it. Maybe it is just that we cannot bear the sight of it in such a way that we tend to get sick when seeing it (or imagining it) without really minding the fact that it happens. Even though we felt nauseated we would then refuse to see more in it than a spontaneous, mechanical and entirely meaningless physical reaction to a visual stimulus. We would, instead of asking ourselves why we are nauseated and whether there might not be something in the object or situation we react to that justifies our nausea, just make sure that we are not exposed to the stimulus, and then don’t bother ourselves with it anymore. Yet on the other hand, this might be a misunderstanding of what our revulsion really means,7 and we may discover at some stage that our revulsion in fact runs deeper, that what we are not able to bear is not really the sight (the sound, smell, or taste) or the thought of a certain state of affairs or course of action, but rather this very state or course of action itself, and as soon as we realize this we cannot any longer believe that our reaction is purely idiosyncratic, that we are just expressing a personal dislike which is of no relevance to others. Instead it will seem to us that the object in question justifies our negative reaction. We won’t say then that it is we who cannot bear what’s being done but rather that what’s being done is in itself unbearable. Hence, we will expect or even demand from others to share our feelings of revulsion or abhorrence towards the action, just like Kant thought we would if making an aesthetic judgement. So the fact that there is something we simply cannot bear, may well be a perfectly good reason for saying that it is immoral to bring it about or permitting it to be.


In a well known passage David Hume (1739/40, III, I, I) states the emotional basis of moral evaluation:

Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ‘tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.

Whereas I entirely agree with the first part of Hume’s statement saying that our feelings alone reveal an action to be wrong, I disagree with the second part saying that in proclaiming something to be wrong we mean nothing but that we have a certain feeling of disapproval. Instead, what we mean is something quite different, namely that the action in question is wrong, and that we know it is wrong because we feel it to be wrong. And we do not think that our feeling it to be wrong makes it wrong. That is why we can in principle always do more than just state our feelings, that is: if we care enough to do so. We can reflect on our feelings and try to find out what it is that we spontaneously object to. We can, for instance, reflect on the fact that in treating animals along the lines of Rollin’s argument we treat them as if they were mere tools or machines designed for human good and that it is this kind of instrumentalization which is morally wrong (Holland 1990, 170).8 Or we can say that our attitude is not in agreement with the principle of respect for nature (Taylor 1986), that it violates the animals’ telos (Fox 1990, Hauskeller 2005), or their individual or species integrity (Rolston 2002, Verhoog 2002). These notions are not just feeble attempts to rationalize some vague ‘aesthetic’ dislike but, rather, serious efforts to understand our immediate emotional reactions, and to understand them in the light of the nature of, and our relation to, the world in which we live. They are expressions of the genuinely ethical refusal to let our moral world be governed by a convenient theory telling us what we are legitimately allowed to regard as wrong or bad and what not. Hence, when, for instance, Stephen Clark declares that there ‘is something wrong, ugly, horrifying about the sight of a living creature made so wretched that it can no longer even care; there is something wrong, ugly, horrifying about mammals transformed into milk machines, or microcephalic lumps’ (Clark 1997),9 then he is not just being queasy. For what he is really doing is articulating a common moral concern without pretending that such a concern has much to do with being what is thought to be rational or sane. And if a moral theory is not able to incorporate these concerns, this ought to be considered a weakness of the theory and not of the concerns many people actually have.10


I am grateful to Nigel Pleasants and Christine Hauskeller for their helpful comments.


1The original is German and the translation is mine. Cf. Midgley 2000.

2Though the fact that the hybrids in this case are human-animal hybrids probably adds to Prendick’s (and the reader’s) horror, it is already the hybridization as such that is considered to be somehow wrong. When Moreau explains himself to Prendick he says: ‘You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another, to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth, to modify the articulations of its limbs, and indeed to change it in its most intimate structure? And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically, by modern investigators, until I took it up.’ (1923, 90) Prendick asks him then ‘why he had taken the human form as a model. There seemed to me then, and there still seems to me now, a strange wickedness in that choice. He confessed that he had chosen that form by chance. ‘I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas, and llamas into sheep. (…)″(91–92).

3Cf. Clark (1994), p.13: ‘Biotechnology is the art of manipulating living forms as though they were machines.’ That they are in fact little more than machines is argued by, for instance, Leahy (1991) and Frey (1980). Thus it is claimed that if animals have needs then they have them in the same way as trees or even machines have needs (Leahy, pp. 44ff.; Frey, pp. 79 ff.), and the same holds for their suffering: ‘Plants can suffer from too much sun or too little water, or a watch from rough handling.’ (Leahy, p.223)

4For an experimental proof of this see Milgram (1974). For a definition of the term ‘aesthetic’ cf. Eaton (2001), p.11: ‘A is an aesthetic property of O (an object or event) if and only if A is an intrinsic property of O and A is culturally identified as a property worthy of attention (i.e. perception and reflection). (….) F is an intrinsic property of O if and only if direct inspection of O is a necessary condition for verifying the claim that O is F.’.

5As Eaton (2001) argues: ‘A deep mistake has colored value theory. The mistake is believing in the general separability of the aesthetic and the moral.’ (p.57). Eaton, however, addresses the issue in an (successful, I think) attempt to refute the dogma that the evaluation of art has to be free from all moral concerns. She does not say much about whether moral evaluation requires aesthetic considerations as well.

6Murphy 1990, 13: ‘Making animals that are a mixture of different species is not a new idea, but it is a new reality. (…) For many people, the transgenic manipulation of animals is a very frightening concept. (…) (However:) When we look at transgenic animals we must be aware that our reactions to them are unlikely to be based on the rational analysis of facts ably presented; the nightmare images from past fantasies are too likely to escape from the Pandora’s Box of our imagination and distort our vision.’

7Cf. Gaita (2002), p.206 f.: ‘Some people (…) become vegetarians because they find they cannot eat meat. At first they might not eat it for a practical reason (…) and then gradually they find the very thought of eating meat repulsive. It would be wrong to say of the vegetarians I am thinking of that they had just become squeamish, if that meant that their disgust was not a moral disgust. (…) But because they are likely to identify the moral basis of vegetarianism with decisions of principle, they might hesitate to say that theirs is a moral revulsion. And if, quite literally, they can’t eat meat because the mere thought of it makes them nauseated, then they might be misled into believing that they cannot eat meat only because of the sheer strength of a ‘merely’ psychological revulsion against it. That would be a pity for (…) the impossibility they express is interdependent with a perception of what it means to eat an animal.’

8‘(…) genetic engineering essentially involves using living things as instruments. Moreover, it reduces them to instruments of a particular kind – mechanical ones. It does not simply view living things as instruments; it views them as mechanisms.’

9Cf. Fox (1990), p. 41: ‘Molecular farming – the incorporation of human genes into non-human beings for human benvefit – is seen as a form of parasitism: genetic parasitism. It is as abhorrent to some people as the practice of grafting pig livers and chimpanzee hearts into humans.’ (my italics).

10Cf. Midgley (1985), p. 149: ‘Today, this intellectualist bias is often expressed by calling the insights of common morality mere ‘intuitions’. This is quite misleading, since it gives the impression that they have been reached without thought, and that there is, by contrast, a scientific solution somewhere else to which they ought to bow as there might be if we were contrasting commonsense ‘intuitions’ about the physical world with physics or astronomy. Even when they do not use that word, however, philosophers often manage to give the impression that whenever our moral views clash with any simple, convenient scheme, it is our duty to abandon them.’ For instance Grice (1967), pp. 146–7. Midgley comments: ‘Grice demands that we withdraw our objections to harshness, in deference to theoretical consistency. But ‘harsh’ here does not mean just ‘brisk and bracing’ like cold baths and a plain diet. (…) It means unjust. (…) An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed. Certainly we can ask whether these consequences really are iniquitous; but this question must be handled seriously. We cannot directly conclude that the consequences cease to stink the moment they are seen to follow from our theory.’ (150)


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