KNAYSI: A whole new Seaworld
Dolphins demonstrate advanced intelligence that warrants granting them personhood rights
Man has a habit of calling himself master of the universe. Centuries ago, we believed the cosmos revolved around us. Anthropocentric thought continues, though it is not as literal as geocentrism was. It lives on in contemporary culture, particularly when it comes to how humans treat animals.
Press people for whether they believe a chimpanzee, for example, should have rights and a common answer might be that they should not be subjected to excessive pain or abuse. But what about other legal protections such as freedom from human captivity or the right to a natural habitat? Does it makes sense to go beyond the most minimal protections and grant our closest biological relatives the legal status of “non-human persons?”
People commonly assume that one must be a human to be a “person” — after all, the terms are synonymous in everyday language. But if we define a “person” as a complex, feeling, individual being — a frequent consensus in the philosophical community — then non-human animals are up for consideration as persons. In order to escape the trap of an anthropocentric view, we must measure rights using a more nuanced standard than “human” or “non-human.”
I believe that animals displaying certain cognitive abilities should be granted the legal status of “non-human persons,” along with all the protections and freedoms that are attached to the personhood designation. Given our exploitation of animals — for scientific research, entertainment, cosmetics, food — we are obligated to give the question serious thought.
When people do consider these questions, they tend to focus on primates, our closest evolutionary relatives. I wish to discuss another animal: the dolphin. According to a growing body of evidence, dolphins are the second-smartest animals (behind humans, of course).
To decide what emotional and intellectual abilities characterize a “person,” we may compare dolphins to the current standard for personhood: human beings. Dolphins share several of our most cognitively impressive traits: self-consciousness, memory and communication. For example, in a common test of self-consciousness, a dolphin used a mirror to inspect himself for spots — he understood himself as an individual. Other careful studies have demonstrated these mammals think abstractly and creatively, innovate their behavior and feel the sorrow associated with a loss. Though space prevents me from going into the details of the studies — and there are many — a quick Google search brings up the history of findings.
Though none of these neural abilities quite match the human brain’s advancement, their sum constitutes a highly complex non-human being. Moreover, dolphins not only exhibit personalities but also learn patterns of behavior that vary from pod to pod — social characteristics equivalent to our notions of culture. Although dolphins’ emotional structures differ from ours, dolphins display some of the feelings we identify as singularly human, such as empathy toward other species.
Identity, culture, memory, emotion, reasoning, communication and premeditated cooperation — all characteristics we thought made us unique — exist underwater, too. I believe this designates a dolphin as a “person” in any consistent sense of the word, and therefore these mammals deserve certain legal benefits.
Dolphins have no need for many of our cherished liberties. The right to vote, for example, holds no purpose in the dolphin world, nor would the concept be understood. Instead, their rights must include freedom from human interference and capture. We cannot kill dolphins for sushi, as is practiced in Japan. Neither can fishermen ignore dolphins captured in their nets.
Dolphin rights also imply the end of many practices we view as harmless. Such practices include dolphin shows at SeaWorld as well as dolphins in the zoo. Even experiments that use captive dolphins to advance our understanding of the species would need to end. What dolphins do with us, they must do voluntarily (in the past, scientists have studied wild dolphins in this manner). Dolphins are in many ways the ideal mammals — smart, cooperative, playful and benevolent. They focus on social and emotional bonds and take only as much from the environment as needed. As long as dolphins do not hurt us, there is no justification for harming them.
Showing dolphins to be “non-human persons” challenges humans’ anthropocentric view of the world. We are dealing with an alien intelligence — one that is both fundamentally similar and fundamentally different from our own. Just as we learned we are not the center of the universe, we must also accept that we do not hold a monopoly on rights.
George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.