1489 Ethical Implications of Dolphin Intelligence: Dolphins as Nonhuman Persons

Sunday, February 21, 2010: 4:10 PM
Room 7B (San Diego Convention Center)
Thomas I. White , Loyola Marymount University, Redondo Beach, CA, United States
The scientific research on dolphin intelligence suggests that dolphins are
"nonhuman persons." (Like humans, dolphins appear to be self-conscious,
unique individuals [with distinctive personalities, memories and a sense of
self] who are vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional pain and
harm, and who have the power to reflect upon and choose their actions.) At
the same time, fundamental differences between humans and dolphins have also
surfaced. (The dolphin brain has an older architecture than the human brain,
and dolphin and human brains have features not found in the other. Dolphins
possess a sense that humans lack [echolocation]. Humans and dolphins have
profoundly different evolutionary histories.) This juxtaposition of
important similarities and differences has significant ethical implications.
The similarities suggest that dolphins qualify for moral standing as
individuals-and, therefore, are entitled to treatment of a particular sort.
The differences, however, suggest that species-specific standards may apply
when it comes to determining something as basic as "harm."
The policy implications are considerable. For example, certain human fishing
practices are indefensible and would need to change. (Over 300,000 cetaceans
are thought to die annually around the world as a result of fisheries
by-catch. Thousands more typically die in the annual Japanese drive hunts.)
Similarly, changes would need to be made regarding the hundreds of captive
dolphins currently used in entertainment facilities. The economic, political
and diplomatic challenges in ending ethically problematic practices,
however, are daunting and multi-faceted. Unfortunately, humans have a poor
track record for recognizing the rights and interests even of members of our
own species once they've been dubbed "inferior." Meaningful change in
human/dolphin interaction, then, is likely to unfold slowly. Yet developing
an interspecies ethic could mark a significant turning point in the
relationship between humans and other intelligent beings on the planet.
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