Are Dolphins Really Persons?

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Are Dolphins Really Persons?It seems that animal rights advocates are never satisfied. Now researchers are attempting to demonstrate that dolphins and whales are so intelligent that they should be recognized as “non-human persons” and accorded their own bill of rights. One simple question remains to be answered: How can one recognize personhood without solid evidence of a person, that is, an individual substance of rational nature?

The Telegraph published an article titled, “Dolphins ‘should be recognised as non-human persons,’”1 where researchers make claims that large ocean mammals, or cetaceans, have distinctive personalities, cultures and even form societies. Therefore, to isolate dolphins and killer whales, in tanks in amusement parks is morally wrong because they are even more socially driven than humans. They add that killing them under any circumstance is equivalent to murder.

In the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada, a team of international researchers discussed a proposal for the “Declaration of Rights” for cetaceans and suggested that the animals share the same rights to life, liberty and well-being as humans. Dr. Thomas White, an expert in ethics at Loyola Marymount, attempted to support this claim by stating that a person needs to be an individual and have an individual sense of self. He claimed that science has shown that individuality, consciousness and self-awareness are no longer unique human characteristics.

Two years ago in Helsinki, a group of researchers proclaimed a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.” They are also working to garner support from fellow scientists in hopes of bringing this to the attention of lawmakers. The ten-point document claims that each individual cetacean has a right to life, a free existence in their natural habitat, protection of their environment and that no person or organization has the right to own one or disrupt their culture.

One of the architects of that declaration, Dr. Lori Marino from Emory University in Atlanta, stated that the idea of cetacean rights has been prompted by a change in the understanding of the dolphin’s brain. “We went from seeing the dolphin or whale brain as being giant amorphous blob that doesn’t carry a lot of intelligence and complexity to being an enormous brain with a complexity that rivals our own,” she continues, “It’s different in the way it’s put together, but in terms of the level of complexity it is very similar to the human brain.” Dr. Marino somehow concludes that cerebral complexity alone allows cetaceans to possess a rational intelligence capable of making moral decisions, which therefore makes them persons.

All of these arguments simply do not put a cetacean on par with mankind — period. The fact that any animal can be trained according to Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning through stimulus does not prove they possess the ability to conceive abstract ideas and perform deductive reasoning, which are two important aspects of the human soul. The fact that cetaceans are social, as are many other species of animals, certainly does not qualify them to be recognized as persons.

Perhaps the most outlandish claim is that cetaceans developed cultures and societies. When was the last time anyone witnessed a cetacean develop a musical style, architecture, cuisine, and a policy of law, astronomy or any other science? They swim, feed, communicate, breed and live today exactly as they did thousands of years ago; devoid of a culture, a society or responsibility for their actions. While these points do not expose the crux of the fallacious claims made by Dr. Marino and company, they help show how far these scientists will go in applying egalitarian myths to creation.

The principle argument animal rights advocates completely avoid is the fact that personhood denotes moral responsibility for one’s actions because it is an individual substance of rational nature. Only the human intellect has the capacity to discern right from wrong and good from evil and then choose. In order to exercise moral responsibility, one must possess the ability to conceive abstract ideas so as to have something against which to make a judgment. Otherwise, one acts out of animal instinct. If, for example, a dog bites someone, one does not sue the dog, nor is it possible. The owner is sued. This is precisely because a dog is not responsible for its behavior, the owner is. A dog merely acts out of instinct and is not capable of moral judgments because it lacks a rational intelligence, regardless of its social tendencies, individuality or self-awareness. A dog is not a rational animal and therefore, it is not a person.

If society recognizes the legitimate rights of persons, then all persons must understand those rights and respect the rights of others. Unfortunately, Dr. Marino and company fail to demonstrate how they are going to educate cetaceans of their bill of rights and their subsequent obligations in their society. One also wonders exactly how scientists will ascertain that cetaceans comprehend their new found rights imposed by humans. Has Dr. Marino ever asked cetaceans if they are unhappy with the life they live in captivity? If it is so bad, why don’t dolphins use their social and cognitive skills in an intelligently organized protest of their forced incarceration?

One nagging question remains: Do these champions of animals’ rights harbor the same sentiments toward a child in the womb? After all, would not the same logic and protections of this scientific “reasoning” apply to the unborn?



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