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


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.

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  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.


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

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Correspondence to Arianna Ferrari.

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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).

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  • Ethics
  • Animal welfare
  • Animal rights
  • Abolitionism
  • Paul Thompson
  • Clare Palmer
  • Speculative ethics