A session this week at the world’s largest annual science conference presented the case for considering whales and dolphins as non-human persons, with basic rights to life, liberty and well-being. The session at the American Associaton for the Advancement of Science considered the ethical and policy implications of recent advances in scientific understanding of the intelligence and behavior of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and urged support for the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, originally proposed in 2010.
Proponents of the Declaration point to the advanced intelligence of cetaceans. The session description reads: “A variety of scientific studies have found that whales and dolphins are capable of advanced cognitive abilities (such as problem-solving, artificial “language” comprehension, and complex social behavior), indicating that these cetaceans are far more intellectually and emotionally sophisticated than previously thought.” The participants presented multiple examples of cetaceans acting with empathy, cooperation and self-awareness.
One of the presenters, Dr. Lori Marino, outlined the ramification of recognizing cetacean “personhood” as it relates to whaling: “Once you shift from seeing a being as a property, a commodity, a resource, to a person, an autonomous entity that has a right to life on his or her own terms, the whole framework shifts.. this is not about harvesting resources, this is about murder.”
The Declaration has a long road to any kind of passage or world recognition, and faces stiff opposition from the whaling industry, from marine parks or facilities that keep whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity, and from some religious groups who object to equating animal species with humans.
Caveats and Precedents
A case might be made that there are pressing concerns to preserve and expand human rights in the world. Canada’s National Post quotes a spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, when asked about the declaration: “I sometimes wonder whether we’ve got our priorities mixed up when we treat animals and the environment with more respect than human beings. There are billions of people around the world who deserve our attention.” Opponents seem to assume that compassion is a zero sum game, as if extending rights to one group means there’s less to go around for everyone else.
However, extending the concept of personhood beyond human individuals is a fraught action, as we have seen in the U.S. case, Citizens United. By declaring that corporations are persons, the Supreme Court unleashed a torrent of corporate funding into an already cash-engorged political system. If the concept of personhood can be extended to corporations, surely the case could be made that dolphins are at least as human as Exxon Mobil or Monsanto.
Photo by Paul Anderson via MorgueFile Free License