Over the past few years, there’s been an interesting debate building on the subject of whether cetaceans – that is, whales and dolphins – deserve to be conferred with a set of ‘rights’ rather being treated as ‘resources’.
Yesterday, at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS, Thomas I White delivered a talk entitled Ethical Implications of Dolphin Intelligence: Dolphins as Nonhuman Persons. White’s abstract is below:
“The scientific research on dolphin intelligence suggests that dolphins are “nonhuman persons.” (Like humans, dolphins appear to be self-conscious, unique individuals [with distinctive personalities, memories and a sense of self] who are vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional pain and harm, and who have the power to reflect upon and choose their actions.) At the same time, fundamental differences between humans and dolphins have also surfaced. (The dolphin brain has an older architecture than the human brain, and dolphin and human brains have features not found in the other. Dolphins possess a sense that humans lack [echolocation]. Humans and dolphins have profoundly different evolutionary histories.) This juxtaposition of important similarities and differences has significant ethical implications. The similarities suggest that dolphins qualify for moral standing as individuals-and, therefore, are entitled to treatment of a particular sort. The differences, however, suggest that species-specific standards may apply when it comes to determining something as basic as “harm.” The policy implications are considerable. For example, certain human fishing practices are indefensible and would need to change. (Over 300,000 cetaceans are thought to die annually around the world as a result of fisheries by-catch. Thousands more typically die in the annual Japanese drive hunts.) Similarly, changes would need to be made regarding the hundreds of captive dolphins currently used in entertainment facilities. The economic, political and diplomatic challenges in ending ethically problematic practices, however, are daunting and multi-faceted. Unfortunately, humans have a poor
track record for recognizing the rights and interests even of members of our
own species once they’ve been dubbed “inferior.” Meaningful change in
human/dolphin interaction, then, is likely to unfold slowly. Yet developing
an interspecies ethic could mark a significant turning point in the
relationship between humans and other intelligent beings on the planet.”
As the title of the talk suggests, White uses human-like intelligence as the marker for a rights-or-resources debate.
That’s one way of deciding the question. However it is also clear that for some communities and cultures, non-human species are already embedded within diverse conceptions of ‘rights’, vastly more complex than the current dichotomy between ‘rights’ and ‘resources’, and one which recognises different kinds of intelligence.
More on these different ways of seeing and knowing in a later post. For now, what do you think of White’s argument?