In the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe" there is a cow specifically designed to a) want to be eaten and b) be able to communicate it. By that the designer wanted to make sure, that it's morally acceptable to kill it. Assume we have a moral theory, we could all agree upon. According to this theory a being must have a certain set of properties to be subject to this theory. Now if I am a geneticist I might be able, to manipulate the genes of being specifically to don't develop those properties. I'm fairly certain that this being cannot have the rights granted by our theory, so indeed I do nothing immoral if I kill that being (this is not what I'm asking).

To make this less academic: Let's assume we'd agree that a being must be able to feel pain. Now we take some genes from a naked mole rat (which is unable to feel pain) and integrate them in ape-DNA. Now we have our perfect lab-animals. Come to think of it: Why stop with apes? Why not take an human?

Or if the theory we agree upon states that a being must have a certain degree of consciousness. Now I clone myself and manipulate the DNA to reduce brain-capacity to the exact level (minus some error-margin) where the required consciousness is not present. In case I need a liver one day, I had always have one available!

Is by any theory something wrong with creating a being with the clear intention to "remove"* its rights?

*There is no actual removal, since all of this would be done in-vitro, so there is nothing there that had rights in the first place.

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    what if it were a cannibalism scenario? i would hesitate before condoning the creation of a inherently suicidal human, tasty or not
    – user6917
    Sep 4, 2014 at 22:43
  • @user3293056 So would I. I find this procedure disturbing - but I have not found any good reason to prohibit it yet. That's why I raised this question!
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:03
  • well yeah we might think that because human life is innately valuable. or maybe we don't think in terms of rights... does your problem exist in these alt. metaethics?
    – user6917
    Sep 5, 2014 at 9:12
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    @user3293056 I'm not sure. I was tempted to tag this question as "meta-ethics" as-well but it felt so... wrong to let it be on applied-ethics and meta-ethics. But maybe it just is...
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 9:32
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    This section of the book is reproduced here if anyone’s interested. Sep 9, 2014 at 21:39

4 Answers 4


I know that, at least, in my moral theory, there's no action that can be taken to remove a life forms rights completely. However, developing life forms capable of sacrificing more easily and readily for the collective would seem to me to be a moral pursuit in an environment where sacrifice is necessary.

In the case of the Restaurant, since technology should've developed to the point where sentient life no longer must sacrifice other life to survive, I don't believe there's any way the cow could be killed morally. In this case, I would use advanced simulation technology developed instead of the cow to convince people that they are experiencing what is described in the book, but are actually just be induced into a certain mental state.

I think that answers a few angles of the question. Hope that helps!


Moral theory in question:

All life comes into its own as free and equal in dignity, rights and consideration. Such life as is endowed with reason and conscience also must observe this truth in transactions with any other form of life.

  • Thanks for your answer! But you require a moral theory in which every living thing is equipped with the same set of rights, so no matter what I change, and how much I change it, it would still be life and as such may not be harmed in any way. I agree that such a strong theory takes care of the problem, but it does so at the price of not being allowed to harm any living thing - not even salad.
    – Einer
    Sep 4, 2014 at 18:37
  • @Einer I've attached the moral model I strive to operate under as I believe it may inform your comment.
    – Calvin
    Sep 4, 2014 at 18:52
  • Thanks, it does! And indeed it entails equal rights for all living beings: "equal in [...] rights". When I raised the question I really haven't thought of a moral theory like that! It heals the problem by (from my perspective) rejecting the structure I though such a moral theory would have. A very straight foreword solution! I like it! Thanks!
    – Einer
    Sep 4, 2014 at 19:08
  • There seem to be a couple grammatical issues in the first two sentences, but I'm wary to change your meaning if my interpolations are wrong. (Complete --> Completely, sacrificing -> sacrificing themselves ?)
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 3:55
  • @virmaior Thanks I've taken a look at it. I've left sacrificing as is because, within the moral system I've outlined, the agency in sacrifice is irrelevant and only the victim matters.
    – Calvin
    Sep 5, 2014 at 14:26

You raise an interesting question or rather a series of interesting questions. To avoid delving into the realm of pure opinion, I'm going to first enunciate the questions you are asking and then address these from Kantian and utilitarian/consequentialist perspectives.

I take your first interesting question to be this:

I. Does consent matter for consuming animals as food?

For Kantians, the answer in terms of animals is no. For utilitarians, the answer for a classic utilitarian would also be no. For the utilitarian, it might, however, still be wrong insofar as it increases suffering. For consequentialists, there is a type of consequentialist who wants to maximize consent in which case this would be more moral than consumption of meat -- assuming the animal can engage in consent. [which we will need to consider the next question to evaluate]

II. Does consent matter for consuming rational beings as food?

This modification changes the answer for the Kantian. Kantian ethics specifies in a formula of the Categorical Imperative that we must treat humanity [which here means rational nature] as an end and never merely as a means. Clearly, consuming a rational being to sustain our bodies is treating them as a means. At the same time, we are told that they are consenting to this.

But this won't do for Kantians. A good explanation of why is if we look at Kant's treatment of sex in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue. Kant has a problem -- sex as he sees it is always the use of a person. Thus, for Kant, this has to be remedied by rationally agree to a marriage as a type of exchange of use rights. In other words, sex is use as means and has to be legitimated by a rational choice outside of the use as means moment. (Contemporary Kantians disagree -- see Christine Korsgaard Creating the Kingdom of Ends and Denis, L. (2001). "From Friendship to Marriage: Revising Kant." Philosophy and Phenomenological, 1-28.). But Kant doesn't think you can consent to the elimination of your rational nature. Thus, slavery and suicide are wrong for Kant (MPV). In other words, a rational being cannot consent to be the food of other rational beings since this would be allowing itself to be a mere means in a way that cannot be redeemed.

For Millean utilitarians, the rational animal difference doesn't matter. Or at best it would matter insofar as the harm principle applies only to such beings on some interpretations. To wit, how does the rationality of the food change the calculation if rational and not so rational animals can experience pain and pleasure? For consequentialists, it might matter if what is to be maximized is something related to rationality. Conversely, it might be more legitimate, if consent is the end-all unit we are maximizing.

III. Does the situation change from the above for eating one's own species?

I would say that there are not specific Kantian or utilitarian grounds for thinking so -- at least as they relate to consent and rationality. But you could be a consequentialist who wants to maximize something linked to being human in which case it would.

There may be other grounds for opposing this available to the Kantian -- or the Millean. Specifically, I'm thinking here of biological problems related to diseases when consuming your own species [their pathogens are ours -- their radical prions are ours, etc.]

  • Thanks for your great answer! My question wasn't about consent per se. I thought a moral theory needs a scope: I may kick stones, but I may not kick people. Stones have no rights. Why? Because of some criteria C, that distinguishes stones from humans, so humans have rights, stones dont. When I manipulate a being to dont fall under C, I think I may kick it - but may I manipulate it to don't fall under C?
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:00
  • That's going to depend. I'm an essentialist, so I would say that the reasons that make persons worthy of moral respect are not eliminable from what persons are. So they cannot be "manipulated" into being something it is okay to eat. If the reason you wouldn't eat them is some accident (like lack of consent), then clearly they are manipulably able to be eatable.
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:22
  • From an essentialist point of view: If I manipulate the DNA before the being is allowed to come into existence, so I wouldn't change it's essence (for at that point of time there is no 'it'), how could it retain it's rights?
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:33
  • I'm not sure how you're using the word essentialism there. In this context what I mean by essentialism is that people should not be eaten insofar as being integrally contains an inalienable "right" not to be used as food. You can only manipulate that away if you also take away the essence. Or to word it backwards, once you've manipulated human DNA into being food DNA, we're not talking about a human anymore and the right disappears.
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:51
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    The example of Douglas Adam's cow is not identical to a conversion from human DNA to food DNA. In fact, it might be immoral to eat the cow for the reasons above -- since then we have introduced problems of both rationality and consent. To make post-human meat moral, it would need to cease to be rational and human -- or else these essential attributes remain making it immoral.
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 9:09

I can propose an abstract consideration. A moral system is autonomous and its demands should be considered independently from factors or conditions that are external to the moral sphere. Here we see exactly the situation where this autonomy is violated: somebody pretends that he has an access to some special authority that in some sense places him above moral demands. This is unacceptable for the moral system and it does not permit him to proceed with his trick.

I would say also that the very idea of the moral system that is ruled by some rational principles - like those mentioned in the proposed problem ("a certain set of properties to be subject to this theory") - is not true moral system: this schema means that the moral has no autonomy. In real life, personal moral judgment or decisions are formed somehow without referring to rational concepts and are rationalized a posteriori.

For my opinion, this is an impasse. The person thinks he can escape the authority of the moral, the moral "thinks" that he is forever under its competence.

  • Thanks for your answer! Isn't the whole point of ethics to create rational systems of rules. I agree that de facto I judge intuitively. But when I try to systematize it, would the resulting theory necessarily lack autonomy (be immoral)?
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:15
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    your first paragraph doesn't show how the thought experiment is a violation of moral autonomy. and it's not clear that moral values are entirely irrational, if that's what you're saying in your second.
    – user6917
    Sep 5, 2014 at 14:58
  • @Einer Rationalizing itself is not wrong. I am thinking about one observation - whenever one formulates a moral statement or theory, in a certain time she stops to do it and begins to judge it - whether it is OK? Is it right or wrong? Does it correspond to her understanding of the good? The theory is thus put within a larger moral context. And this final touch - inevitable - shows that a rational concept, whatever it would be, is always subordinate to something larger and more authoritative. Sep 5, 2014 at 23:37
  • @user3293056 I do not want to say that the values are irrational. More important is that their rationality or logical consistency do not matter for their force. Somebody could be aware that her moral principles are contradictory, but she still feels their power upon her. A logical proof in science is very authoritative, while even if it looks correct in moral argumentation it does not impose obligations for people. I think all this is connected with personal responsability and then - with the autonomy of the moral. Sep 5, 2014 at 23:41

Are we permitted to create something with no rights? Yes, we can create technology in general. Are we permitted to create life forms with no rights? Well, there may be an ethics of dabbling in the genome. Are we permitted to act however we choose to what we aren't obligated to? No probably not, technology can be misused.

HTH. The question is really about bioethics and if creating life, including in the case of talking cows, can obligate us even when we don't infringe the lives of anything we live with or create.

You might want to read Heidegger on technology, if you want to answer bioethical questions from this perspective. i.e. the ethics of technology and its use without appeal to marxism, which I read as value neutral more or less.

  • Yes, the question proposes reducing "Dasein" to "Zuhandensein". Heidegger would have hated it. I can't say I disagree. Something is very wrong with this! Thanks for your answer!
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 17:22

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