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Ethics and Technology
TU DelftTU EindhovenUniversity of TwenteWageningen University
Ethics and Technology


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Anthropocene ethics

Taking animal agency seriously
July 2020 - July 2024

Recent research shows that many animals have characteristics that we used to think were exclusively human. One of these is the possession of agency: carrying out selfwilled action. In the current era, the Anthropocene, animal agency is increasingly limited. How can we change our ethics to better include animal agency?

In this four year research project, funded by Dutch research council NWO Anthropocene Ethics. Taking animal agency seriously, we aim to promote and stimulate ethical reflection in practices involving animals, in order to support responsible policies therein.

Main project

Recent advances in scientific research on animal consciousness and the philosophy of animal minds have called into question the sharp division between human and animal minds, showing that animals have more agency – the capacity for self-willed action – than has been presumed. Ironically, whereas on the one hand science and technology have led to increased knowledge of animal agency, on the other hand they serve to limit it, raising heated societal debate. Science and technology are the drivers of an epoch – the Anthropocene – where animal agency is increasingly curtailed, on farms, in urban areas, and in the wild. Intensive livestock farming has caused environmental changes in the Anthropocene, thereby further limiting animal agency. Habitat fragmentation, urban sprawl and species invasions resulting from globalisation have curtailed animals’ freedom of movement, but at the same time our interactions with ‘wild’ animals have become more numerous. Modern (bio)technologies are employed to deal with species loss and to enable co-existence with animals, raising moral questions. Animal ethics theories are ill-equipped to deal with these conditions. Traditionally, animal ethicists have perceived animals as passive victims of our treatment, rather than active agents with whom we need to negotiate our common lifeworld. They overlook the blurring of the distinction between domesticated and wild animals that occurs in the Anthropocene and have insufficiently thought through what taking animal agency more seriously means for human-animal relationships. The central question of this research is: How can we formulate an animal ethics for the Anthropocene that takes into account new insights about animal agency? This project will take the recent ‘relational turn’ in animal ethics a step further and draft a new ‘Anthropocene ethics’ by (1) analysing the scientific literature on animal agency, (2) conceptually analysing agency, (3) engaging with ethical theory, and (4) empirically analysing practices of human-animal interaction.   

We need new ideas to help us understand the ethical challenges arising from the diversity of new human–animal relationships. This project aims to provide such new ideas via 4 sub-projects that will integrate ethical theory with the analysis of scientific research results on animal agency and empirical analyses of practices in which humans and animals interact.


Intervening in wild animals agency

How can we – and should we – adapt wild animals and their lifeworlds in a responsible manner so they can survive in a world dominated by humans? – Bernice Bovenkerk

In the Anthropocene wild animals face several challenges. Habitat loss- and fragmentation and climate change threaten many wild animal species and populations with extinction. Because of changing environmental circumstances wild animals are severely limited in their agency. Several technological solutions have been proposed. With the help of modern biotechnologies extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon or the Woolly Mammoth could be resurrected. Animals could be genetically adapted – or enhanced – to make them better suited to new climate conditions. And species could be moved to new climate zones in a process called assisted migration. This sub-project asks what the normative presuppositions and moral implications of using these technologies are.

Animal agency

How should we understand the concept of animal agency? – Eva Meijer

The range of animals believed to be conscious and having agency is constantly being broadened. For example, octopus and squid were previously not considered conscious beings, but are now recognised as such because of new empirical research and new insights into the philosophy of animal minds. This project will connect to the growing body of antisceptical treatments of animal mind to carry out a philosophical analysis of the concept agency in a multispecies context. 

Animal agency and technology

Koen Kramer

The ability of animals to act according to their own wants and preferences has been receiving an increasing amount of attention and recognition academically. What does this recognition of the agency of animals imply for the ethical use and design of technologies in practices which affect animals, in particular practices in animal agriculture? 

Answering this question requires addressing the relation between animal agency and technology. Should technology be understood as a hindrance to or enabler of expressions of animal agency, as a mediator of animal agency, or as a factor co-shaping animal agency? Hypothesizing that the relation between animal agency and technology will differ according to the technology considered, this subproject involves observing how farmed (dairy) cows interact with a range of technologies, and analyzing what this says about cow agency and its relation to technology.

This subproject aims to contribute to the overall project by offering empirically grounded analyses of animal agency in practice, in particular of the relation between cow agency and technology in agricultural settings.   

Co-existing with urban wildlife

Can we establish meaningful co-existence and interspecies understanding with semi-wild animals in urban settings? – Yulia Kisora

Cities in the Netherlands, just as in many other Global North countries, are re-colonised by wild animals previously squeezed out by the rapid industrialization and anthropocentric urban planning. Their residents increasingly find themselves having unexpected encounters with parakeets, seagulls, foxes and even wolves. With increasing numbers of animals inhabiting cities, the question we need to urgently ask ourselves is: how do we live with animals in densely populated urban areas, and what are the ethical implications thereof? This sub-project aims to combine ethical analysis with thick empirical descriptions of human– urban wildlife encounters.

More information about this research can be found here.