Animal Integrity: aesthetic or moral value?

Henk Verhoog

The following item was submitted as an abstract for a presentation at the 2nd Congress of the European Society on Agricultural and Food Ethics  to be held on 24-26 August 2000 at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University Copenhagen, Denmark, under the title Two Systems -- One World.

Keywords: integrity, species-specific nature, biocentrism, virtue ethics

Several bio-ethical theories can be distinguished: anthropocentric, pathocentric, zoocentric, biocentric and ecocentric ones. A bio-ethical theory is taken to be a normative ethical theory. This means that it states which natural entities have moral status or intrinsic value, and thus deserve our respect, irrespective of any instrumental value these natural entities may have for human beings. In other words a bio-ethical theory defines what is to be considered morally relevant and what not. As a consequence, the connotation of the concept of intrinsic value depends on the theory in which it functions. The same applies to other normative concepts, such as animal welfare or animal integrity. That a concept such as animal welfare is taken to be a normative concept does not exclude that it can also have an empirical referent.

The concept of animal integrity is a rather new concept in animal ethics. The reason is that it does not fit into a zoocentric theory, the bio-ethical theory which is most prevalent at the moment. Important representatives of zoocentric approaches are Regan (1984), Rollin (1984, 1995), Sandoe et al. (1996) and Singer (1975). Animal integrity does not fit into the zoocentric approach because of the latter’s emphasis on animal interests which must matter to the animal. The animal must have some kind of experience of happiness, or suffering when these interests are thwarted; otherwise it is not considered to be morally relevant. If the horns of cows are taken away in a painless way and the interference does not lead to disturbed behaviour; if genetic engineering has no negative effects on the well-being of animals; if chicken are born blind and bred by humans because feather-pecking does not occur, then there is no ‘moral’ problem involved according to a zoocentric theory. As Rollin (1995) would say, we (human beings) may not like it to genetically engineer animals to adapt them to the housing conditions of intensive husbandry, but that is morally irrelevant as long as the animals do not suffer from it. Rollin does not like it himself, but he thinks this is for aesthetic reasons.

Rutgers & Heeger (1999) give the following definition of (animal) integrity:

"the wholeness and completeness of the animal and the species-specific balance of the creature, as well as the animal’s capacity to maintain itself independently in an environment suitable to the species".

Integrity presupposes the existence of an ‘organism’, a living whole with interconnected parts. It is the interconnectedness, the balanced harmony of the parts within the whole, which somehow seems to be linked to the concept of integrity. We might expect that biologists with a more organismic or holistic approach to life will be more sensitive to the concept of integrity than more reductionistic biologists. Speaking about the integrity of species or ecosystems would, from this point of view, imply that species or ecosystems can also be considered as ‘organisms’.

Vorstenbosch (1993) uses the concept of genetic integrity, which he relates to the genome being left intact. This way of using the word integrity also implies that the genome is not just the sum of a number of genes, to which some genes can be added or knocked out, but a ‘whole’. Making transgenic animals may then be seen as a violation of the integrity of the animal. This view has been criricized by Sandoe et al. (1996). They say that the demand to respect the genetic integrity of an animal would also tell against selective breeding and domestication in general. The question they want to answer is whether and to what extent it is ethically legitimate to improve animal welfare by changing the animals themselves, rather than the living conditions. They reject the approach based on the notion of genetic integrity, and they favour an approach based on the notion of animal welfare. Their arguments for rejection of the genetic integrity approach are:

Just like Rollin (1995) the authors seem to presume that only a consequentialist zoocentric approach, based on the consequences of human action for the well-being of the animals involved is a valid ethical approach in animal ethics. Vorstenbosch pointed out that, different from the concept of animal welfare, the concept of integrity directly refers us back to the moral responsibility of human beings for the state of the animals, whether they suffer from it or not. Vorstenbosch says that the concept invites us to choose a more deontological ethical approach, instead of a consequentialist approach. This means that we have to ask what arguments can be given for the deontological view that the act of violating the integrity of a human being or animal is morally wrong (at least prima facie), whether the human being or animal suffers from it or not.

Such a deontological approach to animal integrity cannot be incorporated in a consequentialist zoocentric theory.

My conclusion is that violating the integrity of an animal does not seem to be a ‘moral’ problem for Rollin and Sandoe because of their choice for a consequentialist zoocentric theory. It does not seem to be reasonable, however, that only such a theory has the right to be called ethical or moral. This shows again that the meaning of normative concepts such as animal welfare, animal integrity, naturalness etc, depends on the normative theory in which the concept functions. The concept of integrity encompasses a number of moral intuitions which are difficult to do justice to in a zoocentric theory, but which can be incorporated in a deontological biocentric theory, such as the one formulated by Taylor (1985). In this bio-ethical theory all living beings (thus plants as well!) are seen as telological centres of life, with a good of their own. The concept of integrity is then related to the (species-)specific, characteristic nature of the living beings involved, which deserves our moral respect. The moral question then not only becomes whether we are changing the characteristic nature of an organism when we are making it transgenic by introducing foreign genes in the genome, but also whether it can be reconciled with an attitude of respect for the integrity of the organism.

Speaking about the moral attitude of the moral agent brings us closer to a third important element besides the act itself and the consequences of an act. This is the notion of virtue, which is an important notion in so-called virtue-ethics. To introduce the notion of virtue in relation to the concept of integrity I want to refer to a discussion I had with a biotechnologist about integrity. The biotechnologist agreed with me that intentionally creating blind hens, so that they don’t pick each other, would be violating their integrity. But, he added, when the animal does not notice it, or does not suffer from it, then it is not important for the animal, it is just ‘between the ears of the observer’. With other words, if I am feeling that making a mouse with a human ear on its back is the wrong thing to do because it violates the integrity of ‘being a mouse’, and the mouse’s well-being is not disturbed by it, then "I" have a problem, not the mouse.

Rollin would probably say that it is an aesthetic question, not a moral problem. It is important therefore to further explore the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Just as with the concept of integrity, aesthetics has much to do with the interrelatedness of the parts within the whole. In aesthetics we also have a discussion about the subjectivity or objectivity of statements about the aesthetic quality of what is perceived (a painting, a landscape, etc.). In my opinion Rollin and the biotechnologist mentioned make a too sharp distinction between the statement that the integrity of an organism is violated (being purely subjective), and the statement that the animal’s well-being is disturbed (being an objective state of the animal). Both statements contain subjective and objective elements, the subjective elements being related to our mind (our thinking) and the objective elements being related to our perception. With respect to the latter Hauskeller (1999) can be mentioned as a scholar who, by emphasizing the role of perception, sees an inherent connection between aesthetics and ethics. He says that perception can be a source of morality when it becomes aesthetic perception, and then it can bridge the abyss between is and ought.

Cooper (1998) applies virtue ethics directly to the notion of integrity, emphasizing the attitude of the person who acts. He says that those who violate nature, violate themselves. He connects integrity with the human virtue of humility, which he defines as selfless respect for reality, for the animal ‘fitting into its own being’. When humility is absent it can lead to alienation, to a sense of being cut off from nature. Those who lack a respect for the integrity of non-human life are said to have a lack of humility:

"A person abandons humility not because animal life has an integrity…rather integrity is said to be dishonoured when proper humility has been abandoned" (p.155)

With Cooper’s approach it becomes difficult, and perhaps impossible, to answer the question how much the integrity of the animal is violated by a certain interference, as can be done in principle with a consequentialist approach to the notion of integrity.

Another way in which the subjective-objective dichotomy can be bridged is the approach chosen by Clark (1998), who connects the idea of respect for animal integrity with a Platonic view of nature. He says that living creatures are not identified by the function they perform for us, but by the ‘kind of thing they are’. As with Cooper’s expression of the animal fitting into its own being, speaking about ‘the kind of thing animals are’ reminds us of the biocentric approach where it is said that animals have a good of their own. Clark emphasizes the genuinely ‘Other’ as a source of morals:

"To be something is to embody, though perhaps inaptly, some one form of the many forms which shape, or are shaped in, the mosaic of the divine intellect…to remake things in our own image, is indeed to insult ‘the integrity of nature’" (p. 222).

The Platonic view mentioned by Clarke reminds us of the old ‘Typus’-idea, and the more recent re-interpretation of it by the biologist Goodwin (1994). A Goethean typological approach is still used by some people in the field of bio-dynamic agriculture. There the Typus is a dynamic pattern, the archetypical form shaping and moulding all the individuals who belong to a particular species. Perhaps it may also be connected to the individualized agro-ecosystem, in-forming it, defining the ‘integrity’ of the agro-ecosystem, and thus influencing the well-being of both humans and animals, as well as determining the ‘good life’ of the plants.


Clark, S.R.L., 1998. Making up animals: the view from science fiction. In: Holland, A. and Johnson, A. (Ed.), Animal biotechnology and ethics. Chapman & Hall, London, pp. 209-224.

Cooper, D.E., 1998. Intervention, humility and animal integrity. In: Holland, A. and Johnson, A. (Ed.), Animal biotechnology and ethics. Chapman & Hall, London, pp.145-155.

Goodwin, B., 1994. How the leopard changed its spots. The evolution of complexity. Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Hauskeller, M., 1999. Auf der Suche nach dem Guten. Wege und Abwege der Ethik. SFG-Servicecenter Fachverlage GmbH, Kusterdingen.

Regan, T., 1984. The case for animal rights. Routledge, Kegan & Paul, London.

Rollin, B.E., 1981. Animal rights and human morality. Prometheus Books, New York.

Rollin, B.E., 1995. The Frankenstein Syndrome. Ethical and social issues in the genetic engineering of animals. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Rutgers, B., Heeger R., 1999. Inherent worth and respect for animal integrity. In: Dol, M., Fentener van Vlissingen, M., Kasanmoentalib, S., Visser, T., Zwart, H. (Eds.), Recognizing the intrinsic value of animals. Van Gorcum, Assen, pp.41-51.

Sandoe, P., Holtug, N., Simonsen H.B., 1996. Ethical limits to domestication. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 9/2, 114-122.

Singer, P., 1975. Animal liberation. The New Review, New York.

Taylor, P.W., 1985. Respect for nature. A theory of environmental ethics. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Vorstenbosch, J., 1993. The concept of integrity. Its significance for the ethical discussion on biotechnology and animals. Livestock Production Science 36, 109-112.

Author's Address:

Henk Verhoog
Louis Bolk Institute
Hoofdstraat 24
NL-3972 LA Driebergen

The URL of this article is

To Ifgene Home Page                  To Ifgene Articles Index