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Fellow Champions Dolphins as “Non-Human Persons”

10th January 2010

Centre Fellow, Professor Thomas I. White, will be presenting on the moral significance of the intelligence of dolphins at an upcoming session at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The other two panellists are scientists: Dr Diana Reiss (Columbia University), Dr Lori Marino (Emory University), with a response from Jerry Schubel, Director of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Professor White’s presentation is entitled “Ethical Implications of Dolphin Intelligence: Dolphins as Nonhuman Persons”. It will take place on Sunday, 21 February, 2010, at 4:10pm in Room 7B of the San Diego Convention Center. Below is the abstract of his presentation:

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.

Professor White is the Conrad N. Hilton Professor in Business Ethics and Director of the Center for Ethics and Business College of Business Administration, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He is author of In Defense of Dolphins, published by Blackwell in 2007.

A report of the upcoming session in The Times can be found here.