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Egenis · Research

The integrity of living beings as a normative concept in bioethics (2004-2006)

Michael Hauskeller

Start date




Funded by

the Wellcome Trust


The term integrity has been frequently used in moral debates about the genetic modification of animals. Usually it is claimed that an animal’s integrity can be damaged even if its subjective well being is not affected. This may be thought to lend support to common intuitions about the intrinsic wrongness of all forms of animal genetic engineering. However it is not clear what integrity means, whether it is descriptive (and what it is supposed to describe) or prescriptive (and what it is supposed to prescribe) or both. Neither is it clear how integrity is related to other terms that were occasionally used in the debate, for instance an animal’s ‘basic nature’, ‘telos’, ‘dignity’, or ‘intrinsic value’. The project examined how is the term is used, what moral concerns are addressed with it and whether those concerns can be philosophically justified.


  • Integrity was defined as an object’s ideal condition and clarifed by distinguishing between different kinds and modes of integrity, most importantly between hetero-integrity, which is dependent on an external reference point, and auto-integrity, which is determined by the nature of the object.
  • It turned out that the only kind of integrity that can plausibly claim to be auto-integrity is biological integrity which is the ability to live according to one’s own natural ends. That there are such natural ends present in individual animals and that they can plausibly be understood as establishing an objective good, was shown through a defense of Aristotelian biology and in particular his concept of final causes (‘teloi’).
  • The project specified the relation between integrity and dignity by tracing them back to different traditions of thought: a dignitas tradition and a bonitas tradition. Integrity is rooted in the latter, which acknowledges the existence of an individual good in living creatures as a sufficient ground for objective intrinsic value which is the core of dignity. However, one can without logical contradiction grant the existence of such an objective value and yet deny that any moral obligations follow from it. This problem could not be solved but led to a discussion of the role of faith and emotions for morality which made it clear that all moral convictions ultimately rest on a quasi-religious intuition that what we do ‘matters’.
  • Once a moral stance is adopted, the biological integrity of animals should be respected. The reason for this is that animals exist as ends in themselves and not as means. It is argued that this fact is systematically concealed by the way genetically modified animals are conceptualized by those who create, use and sell them. Animals undergo a process of reification which eventually turns them into ‘biofacts’ with a seemingly diminished moral status. Yet although this is an illusion and biological integrity is still to be respected, there is no ‘genetic integrity’ as such so that the genetic modification of living beings cannot plausibly be held to be intrinsically wrong.
  • The widespread belief among scientists and philosophers that medical research and medical practices can only be morally wrong if they increase the suffering of living beings has proved to be unjustified. Even when an action or a practice does not involve or produce suffering it is still possible and sometimes even reasonable to consider it morally wrong or at least dubious.
  • Intrinsic concerns about the genetic modification of living beings and the use of biotechnology in general are to be taken seriously and can no longer be ignored on the grounds that they lack a rational basis and are at best merely aesthetic.
  • The notion of harm has a wider application and covers more than just an impairment of subjective well-being. ‘Integrity’ is a useful term that captures those concerns that go “beyond well-being”.

Policy implications

The arguments proposed in order to justify those widespread concerns should – provided they are valid and will be accepted – lend support to policy makers who are willing to take those concerns into account and save them from the awkward choice of either succumbing to the apparently irrational or pushing through decisions that a considerable part of the public find objectionable.


Hauskeller, M., Biotechnology and the Integrity of Life, Aldershot: Ashgate 2007.

Hauskeller, M., The Reification of Life, Genomics, Society and Policy 3/2 (2007), 70-81. Hauskeller, M., Moral Disgust, Ethical Perspectives 13/4 (2006), pp 571-602. Hauskeller, M., Being Queasy about Reconstructing Animals, The Australian Journal for Professional and Applied Ethics 7/1 (2005), pp 11-21. Hauskeller, M., Telos. The Revival of an Aristotelian Notion in Present Day Ethics, Inquiry 48/1 (2004), pp 62-75. Hauskeller, M., Integrity and Dignity. Is there a difference?, Revista Romana de Bioetica 1/3 (2003), pp 81-88.