When is a Person Not a Human? When it’s a Dolphin, or Chimp, or…
After I wrote over the weekend about new research on the killing method employed in the dolphin roundups undertaken in Taiji, Japan, a fascinating comment on the rights of “nonhuman persons” was posted by Thomas I. White, who is the Conrad N. Hilton Professor in Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
White has long been involved with efforts to study and protect dolphins, as well, and is on the scientific advisory board of the Wild Dolphin Project, a long-term research effort off the Bahamas that was written up (and videotaped) for The Times in 2011 by my friend Erik Olsen.
I corresponded with White and invited him to post a “Your Dot” piece going into more depth. He’s gone a step further, providing a short note and a link to a longer explanatory piece on this concept, which I’ve posted below.
An issue that quickly comes to mind in considering such questions is where one draws the line in determining how we treat the animals we come across in the wild or rely on — from horses and dogs and cats to the cattle, poultry, pigs and other creatures we grow in order to consume. [See relevant Twitter postscript below.]
[11:07 a.m. | Insert | Make sure to look back at Don McNeil's 2008 piece, "When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans," for more.]
Here’s Professor White’s note, with the link to his longer piece:
One of the most important features of science is that major discoveries regularly raise important ethical questions. This is especially true with research about cetaceans, because the discoveries of marine mammal scientists over the last 50 years have made it clear that whales and dolphins share traits once believed to be unique to humans: self-awareness, abstract thought, the ability to solve problems by planning ahead, understanding such linguistically sophisticated concepts as syntax, and the formation of cultural communities. The scientific evidence is so strong for the intellectual and emotional sophistication of dolphins that there simply is no question that they are ‘nonhuman persons’ who deserve respect as individuals.
Anyone who doubts this either is unfamiliar with the data or doesn’t understand the ethical significance of it. Both the killing and captivity of dolphins are ethically indefensible. This is not an emotional claim. It is based on hard science, and distinguished scientists like Lori Marino, Denise Herzing and Hal Whitehead recognize this. It’s important to recognize that facts that we now consider obvious–the Earth moves around the Sun, matter consists of invisible subatomic particles, men and women are equal, to name just three–were all considered ridiculous. Science moves forward by being open to the idea that radical ideas–in this instance, that dolphins ‘count’ as individuals and should be neither killed nor held captive–might just be true.
For a brief explanation of this perspective, see my “Primer on Nonhuman Personhood, Cetacean Rights and ‘Flourishing.’”
I encourage you to read it. If you want to dig deeper, there’s White’s book, “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier.”
There’s much more at the Web site of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, including this mission statement:
Owing to advances in several fields, including the neurosciences, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the human species no longer can ignore the rights of non-human persons. A number of non-human animals, including the great apes, cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales), elephants, and parrots, exhibit characteristics and tendencies consistent with that of a person’s traits like self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, symbolic communication, and many others. It is a moral and legal imperative that we now extend the protection of ‘human rights’ from our species to all beings with those characteristics.
Building on my point above about how we distinguish nonhuman animals that deserve “personhood” standing from those that don’t, here’s my Twitter item on an analysis of a big loophole in the federal Humane Slaughter Act by David N. Cassuto, a Pace University law professor focused on animal law:
When is a chicken not an animal? Always, under Humane Slaughter Act. @animalblawg http://animalblawg.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/no-humane-slaughter-no-problem-no-standing/ …
[3:52 p.m. | Update | There's much of interest in the comment strings below, but Carl Safina's entry is worth including up here:
Much of the argument challenging the notion of other animals as persons seeks to pile up evidence that they are like us or different from us. The challenges go along the lines of: Can they talk, write, invent technology. The defenses of the idea argue that they are sentient, sensitive, etc.
One weakness of these arguments is that in each, humans are the measure of all things. This is our idea, not a true reflection of the universe or the planet.
The strictly humane argument, first articulated so succinctly in 1789 by Jeremy Bentham, took the measure away from the human comparison: "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" [Source here]
The way i approach the personhood question is not, Do they value their lives like we do? But simply, “Do they value their lives?” Do they strive to stay alive, stay free, raise their young?
That is as much as one really needs to know, and probably all vertebrates–at least–fall into that category.
The argument against it really becomes convenience. Their capture, enslavement, and slaughter is something we do because we want to, because our devices make it possible, and because they can’t adequately fight back. Other species, like many other humans, especially in the past but too plentifully today as well, are oppressed only because some can oppress them, not because of any rational argument justifying their oppression.
The “poorest of the poor,” the “least of our neighbors,” include many non- humans.]
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In case you missed it, Jedediah Purdy, a Duke law professor and writer, proposed that slaughterhouses and industrial-scale livestock feeding operations should stream video of their operations to obviate the need for secretive filming operations by animal welfare campaigners or journalists.