Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Persons of the Sea... continued

I wasn’t able to get to all the different angles I wanted to in my last blog post, so I’m going to try to do that here. Quick summary: Thomas White wants dolphins to have the status of “nonhuman persons”. Humans are not unique in their complex intellectual and emotional abilities – science is showing that dolphins (and perhaps other animals like chimps and elephants) have these abilities too. "Personhood" is used as a shorthand way of referring to this combination of abilities, and generally the status of "personhood" gives an individual a place in the moral community. Therefore, White argues, dolphins should be considered persons, complete with moral standing as individuals.

The significance of all this becomes apparent when you start looking into current practices involving dolphins. Dolphins are injured and killed by the thousands every year in connection with the fishing industry, and are often kept in small concrete tanks in captive facilities for entertainment or scientific research. Inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on dolphins is objectionable on its own, but capturing, selling, buying and breeding persons is seriously disturbing. This is not to say that an animal must be a “person” to merit appropriate treatment – pain and suffering are very real to all sentient beings. White acknowledges that fighting for “personhood” status is just one strategy out of many. But it's a strategy that is clear cut and easy to understand – under no circumstances do we treat persons this way. Period.

In his arguments for dolphin personhood, White spends a lot of time outlining dolphin “intelligence.” He admits from the beginning that any time we talk about something as vague and multifaceted as intelligence in animals, we run the risk of anthropocentrism – that is, measuring other beings with a human yardstick. With chimps, this approach seems reasonable enough; after all they’re our animal cousins and we share with them much of our evolutionary history and DNA. But dolphins pose an interesting problem. Humans and dolphins have been on two very distinct evolutionary paths for the past 100 million years (that was the last time we had a common ancestor). The complex intelligences that we (and they) possess may be fundamentally different, in ways we can’t even comprehend. For example, dolphins interpret the outside world primarily through echolocation (biosonar), which can be thought of as either an entirely different sense or a highly sophisticated hearing ability. But the intelligence “tests” we give dolphins are mainly based on the primary human sense, that of sight. So when we put a dolphin in front of a mirror and call it “self-aware” because it seems to recognize its reflection, is this an even more remarkable feat? Dolphins are operating in a foreign cognitive environment, and they still pass with flying colors! What should we do in this sort of situation? Is it even feasible to measure intelligence without using some human standards? Professor of psychology Diana Reiss has suggested that we understand dolphins as a form of “alien intelligence”, emphasizing the real difficulty in drawing comparisons with our own intelligence. But the question remains – how do we deal with something so different it's alien?

Another question that comes up in this discussion of moral status and persons is the whole notion of drawing boundaries to moral obligations, of setting criteria in the first place. A brief look at history makes it clear how problematic this attempt has been. I came across this quote by philosopher Thomas Birch that seems to capture the precarious business of setting moral criteria: “we see that whenever we have closed off the question with the institution of some practical criterion, we have later found ourselves in error, and have had to open the question up again to reform our practices in a further attempt to make them ethical.” So what can we do? I don’t think the process of negotiating boundaries and criteria is useless; in fact a great deal of good can come out of just such deliberation. But as Birch makes clear, the problem arises when we settle upon a set of criteria and move on, acting as if the case is closed. White wants to re-draw the moral lines to include animals, and I think his efforts will get a lot of people thinking. I suppose we should just be open to these lines changing again.

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