Everyone’s talking about the lab-grown meat burger. I’ve been expecting this for years, and I think it’s extremely cool. I love me some science, and I’d totally give the burger a try. But let’s suppose the technology improves and the price drops enough for meat-without-feet to displace traditional beef. Is this clearly a good thing for the cows?
I don’t think there’s a clear answer; instead, it depends on a rather obscure philosophical question. For simplicity, let’s say we believe in animal-utilitarianism. We want to maximize the happiness (or utility) of the cows. But what are we trying to maximize, the average utility or total utility? The answer matters, because a widespread conversion to lab-grown meat would drastically reduce the number of cows being raised around the world.
If you’re interested in average utility, then the answer is probably yes. Let’s assume the few cows remaining are treated like kings. In that case, average happiness per cow will be very high.
But is average utilitarianism plausible? Average utilitarianism has some bizarre implications, not the least of which is opposition to adding new creatures with utility that is positive but below the average. If you currently have just one cow living like a king (utility of 100), and you add one more cow who lives like an earl (utility of 50), the average utility drops to 75. From an average-utilitarian perspective, you should oppose the creation of this new cow. Which is weird, because it seems like living like an earl – or even substantially worse than an earl – should be fine. I’d rather be a living pauper than not living at all.
Okay, so suppose we’re interested in total utility. In that case, it’s not clear whether the advent of lab-grown meat is good for the cows. If we suppose (as some animal rights activists would have us believe) that the life of a typical cow in the status quo is worse that death – that is, it has negative utility – then it would be better for the species to go extinct than continue as it is. But I’m doubtful that the life of a typical cow really has negative utility; I think it’s probably very low but positive. And if it’s not positive, it could be if we all switched to consuming free-range instead of factory cattle. If cattle do have lives with low-but-positive utility, then a mass conversion to lab-grown beef would certainly reduce the total utility of the cow population.
But total utilitarianism has problems, too, the most important being that it plausibly falls prey to Derek Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion”: that the best possible outcome is a maximally-sized population living lives just barely worth living.
So which should we support, average or total? Sadly, philosophy offers no clear answer. Both positions leads to some strange conclusions. David Friedman has offered a kind of “third way” between these two flavors of utilitarianism (based on what economists call a “partial ordering”), but I never really understood his solution intuitively. Some people would reject utilitarianism entirely, which may be plausible for humans, but for animals it’s hard to think of any reasonable alternative. (The vegetarian-libertarian Robert Nozick famously supported “natural rights for humans, utilitarianism for animals.”) Personally, I lean toward an ill-defined compromise of sorts between average and total utilitarianism, but I don’t claim to have any coherent definition – let alone a defense – of this position.
In any case, I think you have to conclude that lab-grown meat is not obviously superior to a continued reliance on traditional meat, even from the perspective of the cows themselves. To the extent you place any weight at all on the total number of cows, any large-scale reduction in demand for beef potentially raises serious concerns. Incidentally, the same logic applies to a widespread adoption of no-lab-meat vegetarianism as well.