The cow that wants to be eaten

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A cow tries to convince a human to eat him in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV series.

The cow that wants to be eaten is a thought experiment based on a scene written by Douglas Adams in his 1980 book, The Restaurant At the End of the Universe. In the story, a man has traveled into the future where cows have been bred to be intelligent enough to cheerfully tell humans that they want to be eaten. The man points out how utterly barbaric it is do breed animals to want to be eaten, to which a man from the future asks, how is it more barbaric than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten?

While the thought experiment was initially told tongue-in-cheek, it raises important questions in several areas of ethics. One major objection to ethical vegetarianism is that killing an animal for food injures the animal by going against its desire to remain alive, but genetically altering an animal to want to die eliminates this problem, so, shouldn't it be okay? My objection to this argument is that animals don't want to be eaten, which means that they also don't want to be genetically altered to want to be eaten, so this practice would still be immoral.

Another area of ethics this thought experiment addresses is what to do when the damage is already done. Even if we agree that it is wrong to breed an animal to want to be eaten, suppose someone does anyway. At this point, would it be more moral to eat the intelligent animal that wants to be eaten rather than the stupid one that doesn't? This relates to the problem ethical vegetarians face when asked what we should do with domesticated animals. They have been so genetically altered that they wouldn't be able to survive if re-introduced into the wild, so should we let the species go extinct? Applying the problem to humans, what if a very skilled manipulator convinces someone that their life is meaningless and terrible and they want to commit suicide? Which is more moral, letting them commit suicide, or forcing them to live their horrible life?

This thought experiment also relates to whether humans can truly want to be eaten (cannibalism) or want to die (euthanasia), when our base instincts tell us to stay alive at all costs. However, unlike in this thought experiment, humans were not artificially bred to want these things.

Philosopher Julian Baggini wrote a book about thought experiments called The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten where he describes various thought experiments, including this one, except with a pig instead of a cow.


The Brainless Cow

The brainless cow is a variant where, rather than being bred to be intelligent enough to ask to be eaten, a cow is bred to have mental capacity of a vegetable; it can't desire to live or even feel pain. I have the same objection with this variation as with the original, cows want to live, so it's still immoral to breed that want out of them. However, if I had to choose between an intelligent cow that wants to be eaten and a brain-dead cow, I would say it's less immoral to eat the brain-dead cow.