Skip to main content


Log in

Animal Disenhancement for Animal Welfare: The Apparent Philosophical Conundrums and the Real Exploitation of Animals. A Response to Thompson and Palmer

  • Critical Discussion Notes
  • Published:
NanoEthics Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In his paper “The Opposite of Human Enhancement: Nanotechnology and the Blind Chicken problem” (Nanoethics 2: 305-36, 2008) Thompson argued that technological attempts to reduce or eliminate selected non-human animals’ capabilities (animal disenhancements) in order to solve or mitigate animal welfare problems in animals’ use pose a philosophical conundrum, because there is a contradiction between rational arguments in favor of these technological interventions and intuitions against them. In her response “Animal Disenhancement and the Non-Identity Problem: A Response to Thompson” (Nanoethics 5:43–48, 2011), Palmer maintained that the philosophical conundrum is even deeper if we introduce the non-identity problem into the discussion. In my brief response, I claim that in order to avoid the pitfalls of speculative ethics, empirical facts related to the technologies involved as well as costs for the non-human animals have to be taken into account. Depending on which changes we are referring to, ethical problems can be seen very differently. Widening the consideration to the socio-economic context in which non-human animals are currently used by humans, I challenge the idea of genuine philosophical conundrums from an antispeciesist and abolitionist perspective. Only in a context of exploitation, in which non-human animals are deprived of basic rights and their existence is totally dependent on human exploitation, the contradictions between improvement of welfare and disenhancement of capabilities make sense.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.


  1. The analogy between nanotechnology and genetic engineering from the ethical point of view is given provided the fact that the contribution of nanotechnology does not render possible other methods of creating transgenic animals which would imply the use of more animals than in current biotechnologies. It is clear that a possible implementation in the number of animals used would count ethically.

  2. DNA vaccines involve the transfer of genetic material into somatic cells with the purpose of influencing the immune system.

  3. Somatic gene therapy involves the transfer of genetic material into somatic cells with other purposes than influencing the immune system.

  4. DNA treatment is the transfer of genetic material into somatic cells in ways that do not entail the use of genetically modified microorganisms.

  5. In the case of the creation of GM animals the choice is not between one embryo (with a given genome) instead of another, but rather to purposively modify one embryo (in the case of DNA microinjection or retrovirus mediated gene transfer) or embryonic stem cells (in the case of embryonic stem cell-mediated gene transfer).

  6. Other methods of genetic engineering of animals include the embryonic stem cell-mediated gene transfer and the retrovirus-mediated gene transfer.

  7. “Mere possibility arguments” are arguments where a conclusion is drawn from the mere possibility that the choice of an option may be followed by certain consequences (cf. [23]; Grunwald 2010).

  8. Singer [40] here refers to Sidgwick’s argument about what is good for its own sake. Although he applies this option to the discussion on climate change, I think it is useful for our reasoning on the possibility of creating insentient beings.

  9. The mainstream reference for pathocentric theories is Jeremy Bentham, who pointed out in the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) that the question is not whether beings can reason or talk but whether they can suffer.

  10. In this respect see Regan’s critique of Singer’s account: For Regan, Singer considers individuals not as valuable as such, but rather as receptacles for valuable experiences (like cups) [35].

  11. The phenomenological perspective suggests that the relational component is very important and flows into the perception of the moral status of the entities we consider (cf. [1]).

  12. Rather than starting from our similarity to other animals, including them within the circle of moral solidarity according to chosen characteristics, an ethics inspired for example by Derrida [8] or Adorno (especially in his analysis of non-identity and the link to genocide, cf. [38]) draws upon the profound respect for alterity and gives up the intention to shape the other along what we as human beings judge valuable (cf. [1]).

  13. See the website of FAO at as well as the page of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service on Livestock and Poultry: World Market and Trade 2011,

  14. This short article does not allow for the tracing of various attempts to “optimize” non-human animals for human use back in history. See, among others, Bourdon, RM (2000) Understanding animal breeding, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall and Rader, K. (2004) Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. It is worth noticing that the existence of the categories “farm animals” and “laboratory animals” clearly shows the fact that the entire existence of these non-human animals is dependent on human use.


  1. Calarco M (2008) Zoographies. The question of the animal from Heidegger to Derrida. Columbia University Press, Columbia

    Google Scholar 

  2. Cao D et al (2006) In vitro tendon engineering with avian Tenocytes and Polyglycolic Acids: a preliminary report. Tissue Eng 12(5):1369–1377

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Capsoni S et al. (2011) Taking pain out of NGF: a “painless” NGF mutant, linked to hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy type V, with full neurotrophic activity. PLoS One 28, 6 (2):e17321,

  4. Carstens E, Moberg GP (2000) Recognizing pain and distress in laboratory animals. ILAR J 41(2):62–71

    Google Scholar 

  5. Chapman SC et al (2005) Ubiquitous GFP expression in transgenic chickens using a lentiviral vector. Development 132:935–940

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cimetta E et al (2007) Enhancement of viability of muscle precursor cells on 3D scaffold in a perfusion bioreactor. Int J Artif Organs 30(5):415–428

    Google Scholar 

  7. Davis K (2011) Procrustean solutions to animal identity and welfare problems. In: Sanbonmatsu J (ed) Critical theory and animal liberation. Rowman & Littlefield, Plymouth, UK, pp 35–54

    Google Scholar 

  8. Derrida J (2006) The animal that therefore i am (more to follow). Fordham University Press, Fordham

    Google Scholar 

  9. Donovan DM (2005) Engineering disease resistant cattle. Transgenic Res 14(5):563–7

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. FAO (2009) The State of food and agriculture. Livestock in the balance. FAO, Rome,

  11. FAO (2011) World Livestock 2011. Livestock in food security. FAO, Rome

  12. FARM (2011) Report: Number of animals killed in US increases in 2010,

  13. Ferrari A (2006) Genetically modified laboratory animals in the name of the 3Rs? ALTEX 23(04/2006):294–307

    Google Scholar 

  14. Ferrari A (2008) Genmaus & Co. Gentechnisch veränderte Tiere in der Biomedizin. Harald Fischer Verlag, Erlangen

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ferrari A (2009) Philosophische Herausforderung: in-vitro Fleisch. In: Hoffstadt C, Peschke F, Schulz-Buchta A (Hg.) (eds) Gastrosophical Turn. Essen zwischen Medizin und Öffentlichkeit. Sammelband zum Symposium Medizin-Philosophie 2008. Projekt Verlag, Bochum/Freiburg im Breisgau: 111–128

  16. Flaibani M et al (2009) Flow cytometric cell cycle analysis of muscle precursor cells cultured within 3D scaffolds in a perfusion bioreactor. Biotechnol Prog 25(1):286–95

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Foss GS, Rogne S (2007) When gene medication is also genetic modification—regulating DNA treatment. Vaccine 25(30):5613–5618

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Francione G (2008) Animals as Persons: essays on the abolition of animal exploitation. Columbia University Press, Columbia

    Google Scholar 

  19. Francione G (2010) Animal welfare and the moral value of nonhuman animals. Law Cult Humanit 6(1):24–36

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Future Food (2010) Cultured meat, last update 10/2010,

  21. Graser H, James J, van der Werf J (2006) Optimal designs of breeding programs lecture notes. The University of New England, New England,

  22. Grunwald A (2010) From speculative nanoethics to explorative philosophy of nanotechnology. Nanoethics 4(2):91–101. doi:10.1007/s11569‐010‐0088‐5

    Google Scholar 

  23. Hansson SO (2006) Great uncertainty about small things. In: Schummer J, Baird D (eds) Nanotechnology challenges—implications for philosophy, ethics and society. World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, pp 315–325

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  24. Hazel LN (1943) The genetic basis for constructing selection indexes. Genetics 28:476–490

    Google Scholar 

  25. Lyall J et al (2011) Suppression of avian influenza transmission in genetically modified chickens. Science 331:223–226

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Marie M (2006) Ethics: the new challenges for animal agriculture. Livest Sci 103(3):203–207

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Nagasako EM, Oaklander AL, Dworkin RH (2003) Congenital insensitivity to pain: an update. Pain 101(3):213–9

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Niemann H, Kues WA (2007) Transgenic farm animals: an update. Reprod Fertil Dev 19(6):762–70

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Nordmann A (2007) If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics. Nanoethics 1:31–46

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Nordmann A, Rip A (2009) Mind the gap revisited. Nat Nanotechnol 4:273–274

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board (2003) Regulation of DNA vaccines and gene therapy on animals. Oslo,

  32. Palmer C (2011) Animal disenhancement and the non-identity problem: a response to Thompson. Nanoethics 5:43–48

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Piedrahita JA, Olby N (2011) Perspectives on transgenic livestock in agriculture and biomedicine: an update. Reprod Fertil Dev 23(1):56–63

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Pinkert CA, Murray JD (1999) Transgenic farm animals. In: Murray JD et al (eds) Transgenic animals in agriculture. CABI Publishing, Oxon, UK, pp 1–18

    Google Scholar 

  35. Regan T (1983) The case for animal rights. California University Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  36. Regan T (2003) Animal rights, human wrongs: An introduction to moral philosophy. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD

    Google Scholar 

  37. Rollin B (1995) The Frankenstein syndrome: ethical and social issues in the genetic engineering of animals. Cambridge University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  38. Sanbonmatsu J (ed) (2011) Critical theory and animal liberation. Rowman & Littlefield, Plymouth

    Google Scholar 

  39. Sasnur AH, Sasnur PA, Ghaus-Ul RS (2011) Congenital insensitivity to pain and anhidrosis. Indian J Orthop 45(3):269–71

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Singer P (2011) Practical ethics, third edition. Cambridge University Press

  41. Singer P, Mason J (2006) The Way we eat. Why our food choices matter. Rodale Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  42. Thompson P (2008) The opposite of enhancement: nanotechnology and the blind chicken problem. Nanoethics 2(3):305–316

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Thompson PB (1997) Ethics and the genetic engineering of food animals. J Agric Environ Ethics 10:1–23

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Twine R (2010) Animals as biotechnology. Ethics, sustainability and critical animal studies. Earthscan, London, Washington DC

  45. USDA (2011) Livestock slaughter 2010 summary (April 2011),

  46. Wheeler MB (2007) Agricultural applications for transgenic livestock. Trends Biotechnol 25(5):204–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Whitelaw CB et al (2004) Efficient generation of transgenic pigs using equine infectious anaemia virus (EIAV) derived vector. FEBS Lett 571:233–236

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Yang B et al (2011) Characterization of bioactive recombinant human lysozyme expressed in milk of cloned transgenic cattle. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17593,

Download references


I would like to thank Emma Rush for her precious critical suggestions and advice.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Arianna Ferrari.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ferrari, A. Animal Disenhancement for Animal Welfare: The Apparent Philosophical Conundrums and the Real Exploitation of Animals. A Response to Thompson and Palmer. Nanoethics 6, 65–76 (2012).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: