The case for dolphin rights

Recently, I posted a series of videos where science writers talked about some of the fascinating things they learned at the 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. In one of those clips, Eric Michael Johnson talked a bit about a panel session on whether or not certain cetaceans—primarily whales and dolphins—deserve to have legal rights under the law, the same as people have.

This is an issue that just begs controversy. But in a recent blog post following up on that panel and the meaning behind it, Johnson explains that it's not quite as crazy an idea as it might at first sound.

It was just this understanding of rights as obligations that governments must obey that formed the basis for a declaration of rights for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Vancouver, Canada last month. Such a declaration is a minefield ripe for misunderstanding, as the BBC quickly demonstrated with their headline, “Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists.” However, according to Thomas I. White, Conrad N. Hilton Chair of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the idea of granting personhood rights to nonhumans would not make them equal to humans under law. They would not vote, sit on a jury, or attend public school. However, by legally making whales and dolphins “nonhuman persons,” with individual rights under law, it would obligate governments to protect cetaceans from slaughter or abuse.

“The evidence for cognitive and affective sophistication—currently most strongly documented in dolphins—supports the claim that these cetaceans are ‘non-human persons,’” said White. As a result, cetaceans should be seen as “beyond use” by humans and have “moral standing” as individuals. “It is, therefore, ethically indefensible to kill, injure or keep these beings captive for human purposes,” he said.

Johnson also makes an interesting point—there's a legal basis for this kind of thing. After all, if corporations can be people, my friends, why not dolphins?


Image: Dolphins, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from hassanrafeek's photostream


    1. at first glance, the scientific american blog sounds pro-conservation but this will be detrimental to conservation of endemic species in the long run. what will make these animal rights activists stop from giving personhood to other animals as well? what are we gonna do to stop invasive species? arguments such as the one forwarded by johnson provide added ammunition to nutjobs who think they know so much about conservation by ‘feeling’ what the animals feel.

      1. There is nothing “nutty” about showing compassion for other animals.

        Notice I used the term “other animals” so as to denote between every species on the planet and the one species on two legs that believes itself superior to all the others. 

        By the slippery slope logic of your argument, the GLBT community shouldn’t be given equal marriage rights because it sets a dangerous precedent for people who want to marry their siblings, offspring or My Little Pony collection…

        1. There’s no problem with compassion. Animal rights activists don’t have the monopoly of that. So, how are you gonna deal with invasive species? Or is there an example of PETA actually doing conservation work?

    1.  They get lifetime sentences of hard labor, mostly dolphin and ‘killer’ whales. Not that they committed any crime: it’s just for our fun.

      They also live shorter lives in their pools: talk about a small favor.

      1. Significantly. I remember rading that at least for Orcas, it was 25 years versus 50-60 years.

  1. We would need to have a very specific set of criteria that we use to determine which animals get onto this list of non-human persons.  “Cognitive and affective sophistication” is too vague.  Basically, we need to be able to clearly answer the question, “If dolphins, why not dogs?  If dogs, why not pigs?”  And then what if our criteria for personhood apply to some breeds of dogs but not others, what if they don’t apply to some individual humans (those in persistent vegetative states, etc.)?

    Ultimately I think we are going to have to go down this road, but it’s going to be a tough road.

    1.  Why do we seek to rationalize at all? A life is a life is a precious, awesome, magnificent thing, no matter the appearance or intelligence. The sole reason to justify harming another life lies in tradition, which comes from historical necessity but is neccesary no more.

      1. Yeah. We seem to be trying to rationalize according to criteria we cannot even define from a very narrow perspective favouring the cute and cuddly and imposing our limitations on them. We will always have a necessary relationship with the rest of life on this planet – all species act to alter their environments so necessity should always be mutual. Harm is unavoidable but exploitation is I would say.

        1. But should we seek to minimize exploitation, or seek to minimize harm? For the life affected, the latter is the one relevant which, to our ability should also be the one relevant to us.

          I believe it to be an important issue, not focusing on categorizing a group of living beings as a unit to or not to be exploited, as it leads to that wicked rationalization which at its extremes can be applied to other humans as well – as history shows us.

          1. I was just trying to make some distinction between intentional and unintentional consequences. Harm may be unintentional exploitation never is. We should always try to minimise harm and oppose exploitation. Poetic language seems more suited to some problems than legalistic or scientific language. The problem is firstly epistemological. But necessity, mutuality and respect for self seem significant.

    2. If you wouldn’t do it to a 3-year-old human child, then you have no reason to do it to a bonobo, a chimp, or a dolphin. Similar level of communication and intelligence, and as a bonus, the animals are also capable of fending for themselves and nurturing offspring.

    3.  Well, if we are going to have a set of criteria  to let non-humans into the world of human rights(even a little) then I would say that two of the biggest criteria be that they not be baby killing gang rapists, wouldn’t you?(seriously look it up, not uncommon at all for a group of male dolphins to kill a baby and then gag rape its grieving mother for days and in some cases weeks straight)
      Most states kill people that do that. We even kill dogs and wild animals just for biting a human what should we do to an animal that has some form of human rights when it treats its own kind that way? Kill them? Congratulate them? Do we put the mother in therapy?

      The fact is almost every animal is vicious and heartless to some degree and if it came down to them VS. us they wouldn’t hesitate to throw us under the bus(or boat in the case of dolphins).

      It has always been survival of the fittest, those that can change, adapt and control their habitat the best survive  and thrive, the others fall behind further and further depending on how well they adapt.

      Many animals kill other species for food and their own kind for fun or revenge just like humans. I see no reason to spend the billions of dollars it would take to give them some level of human rights as long as they act like us, we spend enough dealing with our own violence(Don’t believe it would cost billions? Just think how much more we would be required to spend to clean up their habitat than we do now, not to mention the increased cost of policing humans who still try to kill them).

      And when they kill or rape for fun do we treat them like humans and lock them up or give them the death penalty like we do humans? or do they get the benefits without having the responsibility? It would be the latter. So if they are deserving of humans rights and are allowed to do these things why can’t humans, who are just animals after all, get away with it too?

      Let us worry about our own and just be as nice as we can to other species without getting all retarded about “human rights” . We should and do kill the animals we need for food but should mostly leave the non food animals alone.

      Now I’m not bashing you by any means. I see you mostly, if not completely disagree with giving them rights. I simply replied to your post because you mentions the need to give very specific set of criteria. This is really a post to all those that favor doing something this retarded and expensive.

  2. Once they can pay for some lobbyists, then they can hope for some rights.
    That’s how it works here…

  3. Until we are willing to apply the same penalties for homicide and murder to humans for taking the lives of cetaceans, they will always be considered to have less than human rights.  Likewise, until we are willing to apply the same penalties on cetaceans for taking cetacean or human life, cetaceans will have less rights (or responsibilities) than humans.

    Should rights be divorced from responsibilities like is being proposed?  Do we begin policing the ocean and primate worlds?

    “The evidence for cognitive and affective sophistication—currently most strongly documented in dolphins—supports the claim that these cetaceans are ‘non-human persons”–that draws a line of protection that a lot of animal rights advocates might take issue with.

    I am earnestly interested in seeing cetacean life protected, (as well as other intelligent species) but laws have been used to great effect in protecting all sorts of diverse species–not just the intelligent ones–without enacting non-person humanhood rights.

    1. We already police the ocean and primate worlds for poachers to some extent. This law would simply provide the backbone for more robust legal protections.

    2. Should rights be divorced from responsibilities like is being proposed?  Do we begin policing the ocean and primate worlds?

      I’ve never seen a formulation of natural rights that includes “responsibilities” as a precondition.  Do you think we should deny severely mentally handicapped individuals human rights?

      And the notion that we would have to hold apes and cetaceans legally responsible in the same way we do humans just because we’ve decided they deserve rights in some respect is just asinine for the same reason. 

      1. Really? You can’t have done much reading in ethics, then. Kant, Hegel, Sartre, and Rawls are all Big Name examples, one way or another, but there’s also a whole lesser host of contemporary contractarian ethicists whose arguments at least roughly translate to this.

        And where did you get this jump to an archaic specification of the ‘natural rights’  framework, anyway?

    3.  What cetaceans do amongst themselves is not your concern. Humans killing them for fun and through negligence is.

    4. I’m with wysinwyg that rights and responsibilities are different things. I would consider it my responsibility to stop rights violations when I am in a position to do so, but my rights don’t depend on that.

      Policing is a different question; even with people we usually trust different communities or jurisdictions to take care of themselves. When there are massive violations going on, you can put pressure on them or might even step in, but for ordinary crimes it doesn’t always work well.

      Trying to apply the same logic to dolphins and chimps: if you found a male trying to rape a female you wouldn’t hunt him down and bring him to trial, but if you knew what you were doing you could chase him away. If one group were trying to wipe out another, you might take steps to preserve them.

      And of course your main responsibility is making sure you don’t attack them. Rights equal to humans or not, this doesn’t sound like it’s too unreasonable an approach to me.

      1. Unreasonable? Perhaps not. But characteristically late-modern in its insistence that freedom is an essentially passive, narcissistic quality that has nothing fundamentally to do with power, responsibility, or sociality. ‘Rights,’ at least in this latter-day sense, are permissions granted to children by authorities – whether yours or those you would hypothetically extend to animals.

  4. As someone who has surfed a wave with a porpoise bodysurfing right next to me as we locked eyes together, I approve of this message for dolphin rights.

  5. It used to be, Earth was thought of as the center of the physical universe.

    Today’s version of that, is that (some) humans are at the center of the moral universe.

    The sooner we get over this idea, the better off everyone will be.

    1. Eeeeek eeeeek click click click eeeeeeeek eeeeeeek.  Eeeeeeeeeeek click click eeeek, eeeek eeeeek.

  6. Maybe the line should be drawn at self-awareness.

    This is probably where we will end up drawing the line for A.I.’s.

    Having a physical body will not be necessary.

    The recent short about Kara is a compelling look at this situation.

    Imagine an AI created for a game that no longer wants to play.

    Like a dolphin or whale at Seaworld.

    Imagine a prison where your only respite is to do a little song and dance every hour for paid visitors.

    1. I think that ability to suffer is a more useful metric, but too broad for wide public acceptance right now.

    2.  A good place to start would be figuring out when rights are not rational to afford, instead of handing them out like presents on a case-by-case basis. We’re working from a bad assumption, where a being or groups of beings need to prove themselves to us so that we stop killing and torturing them.

      The cautionary principle, with a dash of innocent-until-proven-guilty.

    1.  Actually, cephalopods are similarly favored by UK animal cruelty law.  The only situation in which someone can be tried in the UK for cruelty against an invertebrate is if that invertebrate is a cephalopod.

  7. So long, and thank you for the rights. 
    Dunno, giving any non-human the same rights as people seems like further downgrading our status as persons. 
    Can’t they have their own rights? 

    And shouldn’t we start with giving human rights to primates?  
    The name Gorilla comes from Greek and means  “tribe of hairy women”. 
    Orangutan comes from the Malayan “man of the forest”. 
    Aren’t we just being racist? 

    1. Dunno, giving any non-human the same rights as people seems like further downgrading our status as persons.

      So are you going to be less free when we have a constitutional amendment affirming universal marriage rights?

      1.  No, not at all.  I’m less free when corporations are people. 
        Or are you non-human?  What’d I miss?

        1.  Even referring to this issue as giving human rights to animals is entirely missing the point. Rights are deserved, not given, and they’re just called rights.

          1.  Actually in the animal kingdom(of which humans are a part) I would say rights are “won”, meaning you have the right to live if you’re tough enough to stop others of your own species or other species from killing you. This is the way dolphins work as well. I see no reason to give any animal a “right” that they do not and will not “use”. It used to be called natural selection and was a way to improve the species by making sure those most adapted to the area and conditions they are in to live and those that aren’t to die so they don’t breed and pass on more inferior genes, but I guess that name isn’t politically correct enough any more.
            Humans have basically eliminated natural selection from our reproduction. We make it possible for those that can’t reproduce because of a defect to do so anyway, We make it possible for those with physical and/or mental disease to reproduce, thereby spreading these weaker genes and the result of all this? More and more people being born with more and more mental and physical problems that we taxpayers have to pay for to the tune of billions per year now, and going up every year. It isn’t natural and is weakening the human gene pool drastically.

             Heck maybe their right , giving animals rights and making sure the defective ones can reproduce by helping them to live might be the best way to kill them off, however it is a bit slow……not to mention expensive. Before we know it we’ll have dolphins born with a single flipper fitted with a prosthetic flipper and giving birth to several just like it and then they can do the same over and over spreading their defects(and others as well). What think it can’t happen? We proved perfectly well that it can. We proved with ourselves, and it only took a couple hundred years or so. With dolphins being so few in number compared to humans we should be able to screw up their gene pool in much less time.

        2. But anyway, are you really interested in comparing dolphins and whales to loophole-penetrating  economic constructs?

          1.  What’s more likely? Dolphins get human rights or some humans get second class dolphin rights. Seems like a back door to reintroduce a romanesque citizen and slave culture.

  8. I wrote a paper about this point in an ethics class in 1990 or 1991 and I have to say, it was a closer call than I expected.

  9. I’m all for protection of any species that is low in numbers, but I think giving any animal human rights is straying into dangerous territory which could eventually lead to actual people being jailed because a curious dolphin tried to playfully ram a propeller. 

    If we do extend such a privilege it certainly shouldn’t go to any non endangered breed of dolphin. They are violent serial rapists who have been known to gang up and torture other sea life simply for fun. We tend to overlook all that because they are cute and occasionally do a backflip without prompting in the wild. 

    Sharks and whales, fine. Skates, rays and eels? Awesome. Dolphins are malignant evil in a cute outfit though.

  10. Thins is why I have long supported rights for corporations. Today corps, tomorrow dolphins, eventually, aardvarks.

    One of the advantages of giving rights to corporations is that some of them are rich and can afford lawyers. A population that has legal rights but can’t afford lawyers isn’t going to be able to realize all of those rights.

    1.  Aardvarks?!?!?!?! What, are you crazy or something????

      PLATYPUSES FTW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  11. Besides, why the need for ‘standardising’ how we relate with the animal world? Haven’t we had enough rules and international instruments to go by with regards to the protection of endangered species? How about  indigenous use and concepts about animal worlds? Should we ban that as well because your law says that animals are persons?

    1. How about indigenous use and concepts about animal worlds? Should we ban that as well because your law says that animals are persons?

      How about indigenous concepts about women? Should we allow female infanticide because some cultures prefer boys?

  12. “After all, if corporations can be people, my friends, why not dolphins?”

    But this will decimate my people’s proud tradition of the annual corporation hunt!

  13. I love dolphins. No one can tell be they are just mammalian “fish.” I believe they are probably as intelligent as humans, they just don’t think the same things as humans.

    I was diving off Korea in 1982 and met up with a pod of white-sided dolphins. The were very interested in everything we were doing in while underwater and several would take turns tagging along. I was placing technical objects on the seafloor. After I had placed my last set, I was heading back for recovery and one of those guys snagged a sensor and brought it back to me! I was surprised as hell.  It took me 30 minutes to go back down the line and to see which one he’d removed it. I was afraid the others would join in on the fun and make the task impossible.

    Don’t fuck with dolphins. Let them live and enjoy their lives.

  14. I would suggest that one (re)visits this classic science fiction book:
    It concerns the discovery in the Pacific of a sea-dwelling race, an intelligent breed of newts (Salamanders), who are initially enslaved and exploited.

    They acquire human knowledge and rebel, leading to a global war for supremacy.
    On August 27, 1935, Čapek wrote, “Today I completed the last chapter of my utopian novel.
    He describes the initial thought of the novel as, “you mustn’t think that the evolution that gave rise to our form of life was the only evolutionary process on the planet.”

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