There is a parable floating around the animal rights movement. It goes something like this.
Parable of Horses and Cars
Horses used to be the main form of transportation in the United States. Of course, horses don’t want to be ridden—they’re “broken” to be domestic, and then taught to be ridden and obey humans. Being subjected to hard labor causes horses a lot of suffering, physical and mental.
In New York City alone, there were probably a hundred thousand horses being exploited for transportation. If you lived back then, you probably would’ve wanted this to end. It probably wouldn’t have.
But then along came the car.
Once the car was invented, it was quickly recognized as a superior form of transportation. Within a few years (or decades), the use of horses for transportation was almost completely phased out in favor of cars.
As we can see, technological progress can do more to reduce suffering than advocating from an ethical standpoint.
Thus, we should all focus on technological progress (such as the development of cell-based meat) as the answer to animal liberation.
This is an interesting takeaway, and certainly one that is worth considering.
Technology is incredibly powerful, and it often shapes the course of history. As the book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrates, those with the most advanced technology often go on to influence or control the rest of the world.
In fact, I believe the movement for animals could benefit from a much greater appreciation of the power of technology. We should be encouraging people to learn programming, to learn how to create machine learning algorithms, to learn about drones, to learn about the “internet of things”, to try developing cell-based meat, and above all to understand how science and technology are tools that we must use in one form or another.
We should be taking advantage of technology much, much more.
But there’s another thought that I have, which is that since we have another hundred years of history under our belt, we should analyze the full implications of this parable.
With the car came the ability to much more easily transport large quantities of goods a long distance. In this simple fact you can see the beginning of our modern day shipping and transport infrastructure that moves an unfathomable amount of material from one place to another every single day.
There are good parts of this, and bad, and horrific. For example, our shipping infrastructure also moves hundreds of millions—billions—of animals from farm to slaughterhouse, and then it moves their dismembered bodies from slaughterhouse to grocery stores.
With the invention of the car came the invention of the factory assembly line, and with the assembly line came many other industrial machines and processes that directly and indirectly gave rise to factory farming.
“Get big, or get out”—words spoken by Earl Butts, who saw the potential for industrializing our agriculture. And, ignoring for a minute all ethics and environmental consequences, he was on to something. Industrialized animal agriculture (and non-animal agriculture) gave us mountains of food for cheap.
With the power of industrialization, we get more things, faster, for cheaper. Pretty cool, eh?
Except for when it isn’t.
The car not only signaled the end of the use of horses, but it also indirectly signaled the beginning of the rise of factory farming—a system of cruelty so vast that the net negative impact on sentient beings is almost assuredly much, much worse then the total negative impacts caused previously by humans using horses instead of cars.
So we can start to see that there are really two lessons in this parable instead of one.
The first lesson is that technology is powerful and shapes the course of history. I completely agree.
But the second lesson is perhaps more subtle, and requires more historical context—and it’s potentially more important.
The second lesson is that technological progress is neutral. It can be used for good, and it can be used for bad. Unless there is an inherent reason why the technology should not be used for bad, it will probably be used that way if there is any incentive to do so. Technology can be used to replace horses with cars. Technology can also be used to construct factory farms and inflict endless torment on trillions of sentient individuals.
Expanding Our Moral Circle
So what keeps us from using technology for evil, and only for good? The answer is our collective human ethics—the things we are, and aren’t, willing to do as humans.
We aren’t willing to conduct painful or destructive experiments on humans without their consent—and often even with their consent—even if doing so might lead to some great breakthrough in medical knowledge that could save lives and prevent suffering. No matter the gains, we simply aren’t willing as a society to cross that line.
Anytime we discover a new thing that we aren’t willing to do (or allow) in human society, we construct a new law to codify it. When we think the whole world should abide by that law, we try to get unified global agreement on the issue, often through an international institution like the United Nations.
Our ethics become our laws—and vice versa, in many cases.
Thus, when taking the long view—the view that looks hundreds or thousands of years into the future—we must discuss ethical progress.
Technological progress is neutral. It must be constrained by ethical progress.
If we want to broaden our societal ethics to include nonhumans as well as humans, we need to expand humanity’s moral circle. Unless we manage to inspire a greater ethic within humanity, any technology which is used for good today might just as well be used for evil in the future. And, as we’ve seen with factory farming, the numbers of individuals who are impacted in the future might be mind-boggling to us today, just as the number of factory farmed animals today would probably be shocking to people living at the turn of the 20th century.
The point is that as we’re all hoping for technology to help us in this movement for animals—something which I’m personally very hopeful about as well—don’t forget that technology is not enough. We must also expand the ethics of humanity to use technology for good.
The lives of boundless future individuals depends on it.
Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.
We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.