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On Dolphins as a Gateway to Animal Rights

My life-as-a-tweeter is less and less significant these days. It's just not all that interesting to me. Something about jockeying for position in 140 characters or less, rather than interacting and sharing, I guess.

I did tweet about "Scientists Say Dolphins Should Be Treated As 'Non-human Persons'" yesterday, as I think this is a Gray Matter for a lot of people and might be interesting to explore.

The way I see it, there are three camps on this one:

  1. People who think that dolphins or Great Apes or chimps could function as a gateway to other animals getting rights. You could be for or against animal rights and believe the gateway theory.
  2. People who think that dolphins or some other animals–and only those animals–really should have rights because they are legitimately special;
  3. People who think it's speciesist to go in this direction and don't support it at all (as opposed to the people in the first camp, who might also think it's speciesist but who might also look at it as a step in the right direction).

Riddle me this: If you're in camp #3, do you think it's bad to pursue personhood for individual species, or is it just something you're not going to spend your time on because of the various problems with the process (e.g., which animals and why, what characteristic/s and whose definition of them, just to name a few)? Would you actually actively campaign against rights for some species?

As for the deconstructing the article, I'm afraid there aren't any surprises:

  • "Dolphins have been declared the world's second most intelligent creatures" are the first ten words of the article. Dolphins are so smart that scientists think they should be treated as "non-human persons" and as such it is "morally unacceptable" to use or kill them. This all sounds very suspect to me, and without reading another word I worry that intelligence is somehow based on what we humans have defined as intelligence and is a quality that we probably have in great quantity. The entire discussion, I fear, will be about comparing dolphins to humans and the more human-like they are, the more intelligent they are, and the more worthy of moral consideration they are. We'll see . . .
  • "Many dolphin brains are larger than our own and second in mass only to the human brain when corrected for body size." Of course, the size of a brain isn't what's important. The important measurement is the ratio to the body size. And there we win, and whoever comes in second (dolphins) should therefore be almost as worthy as we are of . . . having their lives to themselves.
  • Dolphins used to be positioned below chimps, but recent studies have shown the bottlenose to be more intelligent. They also have distinct personalities (and chimps don't? and dogs don't? and chickens don't?) a strong sense of self (you just know a mirror study is coming) and can think about the future. Just as an aside about that last one, "spiritual," religious, and self-help leaders have for over a decade been trying to get people to not think about the future, and being "in the moment" is perhaps one of the more difficult things for many humans to do. What does that say? (I bet something like: We're so smart that our intelligence gets in the way.)
  • Finally, dolphins got culcha, meaning "new types of behaviour can quickly be picked up by one dolphin from another." I'd like to know what behaviors constitute plain old learning, or adaptation even, and which constitute culture. 
  • Enter the inevitable mirror study, demonstrating bottlenose dolphins can recognize themselves. They have learned some symbol-based language, and they solve problems, cooperate, and learn tricks. They can also learn how "to hold sponges over their snouts to protect themselves when searching for spiny fish on the ocean floor." And when Charles wants to eat some cat poop that is covered with fire ants, he'll either try to wipe it with a leaf or he'll wipe them off with a very quick, choppy motion because he has learned how fast they can jump onto him and bite him. And he has learned that all cat poop is worth the effort. 
  • Dolphins cooperate to round up fish (kind of like the way the Japanese cooperate to round up the dolphins). But if you live on a lake in South Florida, you know that anhingas, who swim as well as they fly and run (is there a hierarchy for triathletes in the natural world? Where are we on that one, I wonder?), drive fish to one end of a lake, and when you see it happen though there's a beauty in it, and certainly efficiency and effectiveness, it also seems barbaric when the fish, who are panicking and have nowhere to go, get killed and eaten by the graceful, athletic, intelligent anhingas.
  • The brains of dolphins have similar folds, like the ones we have and are linked with human intelligence.

There are currently 112 comments on this article. What do you think?

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    Thank you for your fine commentary on the inconsistencies and prejudices of people who hold up dolphins (and apes, including humans) as “special”.

    I clearly and strongly fall into Camp 3. Just like I wouldn’t campaign against human rights, I would not campaign against dolphin (or anybody else’s) rights.

    I do think it is extremely speciesist (yes, extremely), however, to focus on anthropocentric abilities, such as human-like cognitive abilities, as “the reason” why X should have basic rights to not be property, exploited, intentionally and unnecessarily killed, etc, and I would campaign against that “reason” for recognizing such rights, stating that the only necessary *and* sufficient characteristic is sentience.

    January 6, 2010
  2. Beth #

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I had the same reaction as I watched, "The Cove." The participants in the documentary went to great lengths to expose what was happening in the cove, but when I finally saw the "horrific" human actions, I was left cold. "Heck," I thought, "we do this to millions of animals a minute. Why isn't anybody acting horrified and going to great lengths to stop that? Why is it radical to stop using animals and treat them with respect, no matter what we decide their intellect (or cuteness) factors are. Plus, I could have sworn I saw some of the dolphin crusaders eat meat.

    Funny world we live in, filled with cognitive dissonance.

    Thanks for your work, Mary.

    January 6, 2010
  3. Mary #

    I did just want to clear up one thing that sounded horrid. The "beauty" in what the anhingas do was their dance, their collective movement. The first time I saw their drive I didn't know what it was so all I was reacting to was what it looked like–until the end. Today, I don't think I'd watch if I had another opportunity. It's one of those things that's only beautiful once, and it certainly loses any charm when you see how it ends.

    And while I'm at it, I just saw John's point about "the Japanese," which was very careless as it's not as if all Japanese people participate in the drive. I swear I had the voice of the South Park kid in my mind, "Oh no, it's the Japanese," from that wildly offensive "Whale Whores" episode.

    January 6, 2010
  4. John N. #

    Just like with human animals we place those non human animals with the highest "intelligence" on a pedestal and offer them the greatest protection from harm. Like you said, we only base intelligence on human factors. It even riles me when someone says "stupid dog" when he or she did not perform in the manner requested by the owner/guardian.
    Maybe petty and I know you didn't mean to be derogatory by it but I think we should clarify the use of the name "Japanese" who round up dolphins as being "Japanese fisherman" or "Japanese dolphin hunters." I read something similar on a Tweet about Japanese ramming a Sea Shepherd vessel…rather than saying "Japanese whalers." As an American I'd hate to be grouped with the majority of Americans who's actions I deplore.

    January 6, 2010
  5. I felt the same way about the cove. Sure, it's awful that dolphins are killed in such large numbers and horrible ways, but it's 100 times more awful what we do to farmed animals. But anything that gets people to think about animal rights, even if it's very speciesist, is probably a good thing.

    January 6, 2010
  6. Nice one Mary. I find it a bit insane that humans get to decide whether other animals get to live based on how they compare to our version of intelligence. Madness.
    I also blogged about it (and the ignorant comments) here:

    January 6, 2010
  7. Mary – I'm in the first camp. My experience talking to countless vegetarians and vegans is that most people gain small understandings of how this or that particular animal or particular species is similar to humans and then they broaden that perspective and apply a more rational and ethical view of all animals, realizing that differences between human and non-human animals in ability, appearance, language, size, etc. do not justify cruelty or death.

    Dan – you said "the only necessary *and* sufficient characteristic is sentience." I want to caution you on using the word "sentience" because a) most people don't know what it means; it's simply to say that animals feel pain, b) the anti-vegans are trying to redefine sentience to make it more about intelligence and less about physical sensation.

    Beth – I had a different interpretation of The Cove. I viewed the film (intentionally) as a film designed to inspire direct action more than a film about dolphin slaughter.

    January 7, 2010
  8. Dan #


    Thanks for the heads up on anti-vegans trying to re-define sentience. That certainly wouldn’t and doesn’t surprise me. They will go to desperate measures to obfuscate language and avoid truth (with a lower-case t) and the possibility that people actually become educated on these issues.

    I do think we ought to use sentience as much as possible for two reasons. 1) To make people more aware of the word and its meaning, since it is so strongly relevant to ethics. 2) To combat those who would attempt to re-define it. Fortunately, there already is a widely accepted and used term for intelligence: intelligence. We don't need two words for it, so we who use sentience properly have an advantage.

    January 7, 2010
  9. Angus #

    I'm firmly in Camp One. The legal recognition of any non-humans as persons would be a tremendous rupture of the idea that only humans really count. It's no wonder that those who campaign against animal liberation, like Wesley J. Smith, froth at the mouth at news like this. And for good reason. They recognize what is at stake. I think I understand the argument of liberationists who oppose granting rights first to (other) apes or dolphins, but the reality is that it will simply never happen that all sentient non-humans are all at once recognized as persons. On the other hand, once the legal barrier is broken, and people really get their heads around the idea that you don't have to be human to be worthy of being treated with respect, it's only a matter of time before the boundaries of the moral community are widened much further.

    January 7, 2010
  10. Well, one thing that might be positive in all this. If dolphins are 2nd, chimps 3rd… based on all the criteria stated above then crows should be next. Then immediately elephants, pigs, gorillas, wolves, octopus, whales…etc.

    Wait two things will be positive…Wesley J Smith will have a nervous breakdown.

    January 8, 2010
  11. I'm in camp 3… I do think it's speciesist. But when these hierarchal "victories" happen I confess to secretly rejoice inside. Would I campaign or advocate for a certain species over another? No, but I realize the world operates on this "where do you draw the line" mentality. It's good to know this "line" is drawn in pencil, and will change according to our awareness and our ability to empathize.

    And as far as assigning "special animals" value over others – What about the odd concept of "breed merit"? Setters vs pugs vs chows, kind of order… But that seems to be the way "species value" will go too.

    It's sad when you get the mental picture of this "order" – I somehow see an endless line of critters – each with a number. Of course snakes, mice and rats, etc. at number "infinity". 🙁

    January 9, 2010
  12. Since I'm the philosopher referred to in the article, let me see if I can clarify things a bit. Not surprisingly, reducing things to catchy headlines and sound-bites in the popular media means much is lost. When I argue in my book IN DEFENSE OF DOLPHINS that dolphins are "nonhuman persons," my main points are something like these: 1. Humans are not unique in having the sophisticated cognitive and affective abilities that our brains make possible–the kind of consciousness we possess—and that we always said belonged to us alone. 2. Philosophers use "personhood" as a shorthand way of referring to this combination of abilities, and the hope is that the criteria are not anthropocentric. 3. Philosophers generally concede that "personhood" confers an individual "moral standing." 4. Dolphins have these abilities (and other nonhumans probably do as well [chimps, gorillas and elephants, for starters]). 5. Therefore, dolphins are nonhuman persons with moral standing as individuals. 6. Personhood is by no means the only basis on which to argue that nonhumans need to be treated appropriately. However, nonhuman animals who qualify for personhood present the strongest, most uncontroversial case for humans who are skeptical of the whole idea of “animal rights.”
    I do not think that personhood is the only, or even the best argument for treating nonhumans appropriately. (There is a risk of anthropocentrism in how the criteria get specified.) For example, I am strongly drawn to the importance of the conditions necessary for a being to “flourish.” However, discussions around such concepts tend to be more technical. So the general public tends to be less sympathetic towards them.

    January 12, 2010
  13. Mary #

    Hi Thomas, and thanks for stopping by.
    I understand your position. I believe that most regular readers of this blog are familiar with the conversation regarding "ranking" nonhumans and choosing traits whereby to rank. My main query for readers is whether they *support* granting legal personhood to one particular species, as many animal rights activists would not because to do so would be speciesist–even though the nonhumans appear to already qualify.

    On the other hand, many would support such a measure, even though it may be speciesist, as they see it as a small step in the right direction.

    Finally, when it comes to arguments for treating someone "appropriately," as you say, we who advocate for animal rights tend to say that sentience is all that is needed. In other words, we have no right to use (whether by creating or hunting or capturing) sentient beings for our use. They deserve to live their own natural lives, free of our proclivity to call them resources and use them as such. Beings who experience pain, pleasure, boredom and frustration shouldn't have their freedom and their lives taken away from them just because we want to eat them, wear their skin, or watch them do silly tricks for our entertainment.

    While qualification for personhood in dolphins as you describe it is indeed strong, the argument for not using any sentient being is just as strong.

    January 13, 2010
  14. Angus #

    CBC Radio has just aired interviews with Dr. White and others on this issue. In the reaction of Margaret Somerville we hear the usual claim that recognizing non-humans as persons or ascribing rights to them would undermine human rights. (I note that she quotes Wesley J. Smith, whose anti-liberation polemic is about to be published.)
    Scroll down to "Listen to Part Two".

    January 19, 2010

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