It’s important to first get straight what such technology would and would not enable animals to do. It’s doubtful that this technology would enable animals to coordinate their efforts to overthrow their captors in some Orwellian fashion.
Animals already communicate with each other in ways that are meaningful to them, but they do not communicate in ways that would allow them to intricately coordinate their efforts with each other. Such large-scale strategy requires additional abilities, including a firm grasp of grammar and a rich ability to reason about the minds of others.
What this technology would probably do is provide some semantic overlay to animals’ current communicative repertoire (for example: “bark, bark!” rendered as: “intruder, intruder!”). It is possible that this ability alone might be compelling for some people to stop eating meat, that we can’t help but “humanise” talking cows and pigs or see them as more like ourselves.
There is some empirical evidence to support this idea. A group of researchers led by Brock Bastian asked people to write a short essay outlining the many ways in which animals are quite similar to humans. Other participants wrote about the ways in which humans are quite similar to animals. Participants who humanised animals had more positive views of them than those who animalised humans.
So if this technology had the ability to make us think of animals more like humans, then it could promote better treatment of animals.
Meat is murder
But let’s imagine for a moment that the technology could do something more – it could reveal more of the animal’s mind to us. One way this could benefit animals is it would show us that animals think about their future. This might stop us from eating animals because it would force us to see animals as beings who value their own lives.
The whole notion of “humane” killing is based on the idea that as long as you take efforts to minimise an animal’s suffering, it is okay to take its life. Since animals do not consider their lives in the future – they are stuck in the “here and now” – they do not value their future happiness.
If technology could allow animals to show us that animals do have future aspirations (imagine hearing your dog say: “I want to play ball”), and that they value their lives (“Don’t kill me!”), it is possible that this technology could stir in us deeper compassion for animals killed for meat.
However, there are also reasons to be sceptical. First, it is possible that people would simply attribute the speaking ability to the technology and not to the animal. Therefore, it would not really change our fundamental view of the animal’s intelligence.
Second, people are oftentimes motivated to ignore animal intelligence information anyway.
Rationalising our diet
Steve Loughnan of the University of Edinburgh and I recently ran a series of studies – part of a project which is yet to be published – where we experimentally varied people’s understanding of how intelligent various animals are. What we found is that people use intelligence information in a way that prevents them from having to feel bad about participating in the harm inflicted on intelligent animals in their own culture. People ignore information about the intelligence of animals when an animal is already used as food in one’s culture. But when people think about animals that are not used as food, or animals used as food in other cultures, they do think an animal’s intelligence matters.
So it is possible that providing animals with the means to speak to us would not change our moral attitude at all – at least not for animals that we already eat.
We have to remember what should already be obvious: animals do talk to us. Certainly they talk to us in ways that matter for our decisions about how to treat them. There is not much difference in a crying frightened child and a crying frightened piglet. Dairy cows that have their calves stolen from them soon after birth are believed by some to bemoan the loss weeks afterwards with heart wrenching cries. The problem is that we often do not take the time to really listen.