Persons of the Sea?

You’ve stumbled upon a group of beings. For all you can tell, these beings are self-aware, intelligent, have emotions, solve complex problems, and call each other by name. They have thoughts and feelings and probably experience life in a way that is very similar to your own. Are they persons? And do you have moral obligations towards them?

Thomas White, Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, has made news claiming that we have found such a group of beings. In fact, we’ve been living alongside them for a while now. They’re dolphins, and they’re people too. At an upcoming AAAS conference in San Diego, White will be arguing that dolphins deserve the status of “nonhuman persons”. The research in marine science now overwhelmingly shows that dolphins have a highly sophisticated type of consciousness and inner world – and their cognitive capacity is second only to humans (yes, they beat chimps). With such high intellectual and emotional abilities, White claims they are entitled to special moral status and protections. The implications for current practices involving dolphins (in the context of fishing, entertainment, research and the military) are serious, since they would be considered chillingly unethical if they involved human persons.

The notion of “nonhuman persons” may strike some as an oxymoron. In common usage, “human beings” and “persons” are used interchangeably – to find out how many persons are in the room, you’d count the number of human individuals. However, human being can be more specifically understood in a biological sense, that is, belonging to the species Homo sapiens. Person, on the other hand, does not always match up to a human counterpart. The word has long been used to refer to non-human entities: in Christianity we find the three persons of the Holy Trinity, or in law we find the notion of “legal person” to refer to organizations like cities, colleges, or (stirring up quite a controversy recently) corporations. It’s commonly acknowledged that not all persons are human beings. But why should we consider dolphins persons, and what would change if we did?

In ethics, “personhood” is often used to signify something with moral status. That is, it serves to identify the kinds of beings to whom we have obligations and which beings should have their interests protected. White defines a person as a being that is alive and aware, feels pleasure and pain, has emotions and a sense of self, controls its actions, recognizes other persons and treats them appropriately, and has higher order intellectual skills like ability to learn, communicate, solve complex problems and engage in abstract thought. If dolphins have all these characteristics (White claims they do), then they should be considered persons. As such, they would have a new place in the moral community – they would become a “who”, not a “what”.

Conferring personhood on dolphins has not gone without criticism, however. Some worry that opening up the realm of persons to animals means denying anything “special” about being a human, per se. Humans become just another animal in the forest, without any unique value. Some animal rights advocates, like Peter Singer, fully acknowledge and support this conclusion; they think that to give humans any special status is speciesism and cannot be morally justified. But a more general worry arises with the attempt to define “person” with a list of characteristics. With a definition like White’s, to be a person means to meet certain criteria (otherwise you’re out of the moral loop, so to speak). This makes it difficult to justify our moral obligations to many human beings, for example infants or the mentally handicapped. The exclusion of many humans from the moral status of “person” does not mean we need to abandon the concept, but it does present difficulties.

Are there other ways to confer moral status without invoking the tricky notion of personhood? Some have proposed other criteria, like life, sentience, role in a social community, or a combination of intrinsic and relational factors (Mary Anne Warren has proposed a list of seven). There are pros and cons to each, and it is unlikely that we’ll settle on a set of moral criteria anytime soon. What White has done is bring the criteria up for discussion, and the idea of dolphins as persons may challenge some seemingly rock solid assumptions about the special status of human beings, and the general difficulties of trying to draw lines around moral status in the first place. I hope the discussion continues.

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6 Responses to Persons of the Sea?

  • My question is: if we grant dolphins non-human person status, what would their relationship be to international governments. Being sea creatures, they would be largely in international waters and have territories that can circle the globe. UN protectorate? A unique, international alliance a la NATO?

  • Simon says:

    Isn’t this as far as the personhood moral status pretty clear cut and it is only social inertia that is stopping great apes, dolphins and elephants personhood rights? Throw in the possibility of A.I. and you really muddy the waters.

    Personally being something of a atheist quasi-Jainist I’ve always considered the personhood moral argument problematic in the extreme,even apart from the fact it is inconsistenly applied.

    Interestingly as far as I know no one has systematically dealt with Tooley’s Actualisation vs Capacity problem; and anyway, as far as I’m concerned is a false dilemma as my Systems Account of Identity argues even if you wish to use personhood as the defining moral criterion all Homo Sapiens are by definition persons.

  • Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo says:

    I think the problem of the proper status of animals is a very stimulating one, principally in metaphysics (besides ethics). Nevertheless, my point is that the proper question for the understanding of what we mean by ‘person’ is not the question: “Do we have moral obligations towards them?”, but: “Could they bear duties toward us (or toward someone else)?” Of course, If by ‘person’ we mean, as in White’s opinion, a “being that is alive and aware, feels pleasure and pain, has emotions and a sense of self, controls its actions, recognizes other persons and treats them appropriately, and has higher order intellectual skills like the ability to learn, communicate, solve complex problems and engage in abstract thought”, then, well, dolphins would be persons (and possibly other non-human animals also, like chimps). But, would be that the concept of person commonly used by moral and political philosophers? I don’t think so. In moral and political philosophy, thinkers usually make reference to a special kind of being with the capability of creating rights and duties, a kind of being that can bear responsibilities. Is that kind of being a “person”? Certainly. Actually, they are the paradigm of persons. But responsibilities imply two subjects: in one side, the duty-bearer; in the other side, the beneficiary. Geoffrey Warnock wisely said in The object of morality that there are individuals that can be both agent and patient of moral actions; nevertheless, there are beings that cannot bear responsibilities, yet are moral patients. We can call by ‘person’ both kind of beings. But I suggest calling by ‘person’ only the first kind in a very strict sense. Would dolphins have that kind of ability of being responsible agents? Certainly not. Then they cannot be persons, even thought they are beneficiary subjects of persons’ moral actions. Well, it can be argued that the claim that “only individuals with ‘moral powers’ (a kantian thesis) are persons” implies the “exclusion of many humans”, like infants or the mentally handicapped, of the “person” category, an abject consequence. But we have a solution. For being human (that is, being a member or an individual of the human species) implies to be a kind of being that, as a type of being, is capable of having this moral status (for the capability of bearing duties and moral responsibilities is an essential trait of that type – I follow here a thesis stated by Paul Grice). Acknowledging this, it is possible to understand why we can say that humans are persons and dolphins are not. Yet this doesn’t mean that non-human animals don’t deserve moral respect. Persons have the duty of respecting other persons, but the beneficiaries’ scope is not restricted to persons or humans. Persons can have the duty of respecting all sentient beings, and not only the smart ones, like dolphins.
    (Marco Azevedo, from Brazil, Methodist University Center).

  • Simon says:

    “I think the problem of the proper status of animals is a very stimulating one, principally in metaphysics (besides ethics). Nevertheless, my point is that the proper question for the understanding of what we mean by ‘person’ is not the question: “Do we have moral obligations towards them?”, but: “Could they bear duties toward us (or toward someone else)?”

    “But we have a solution. For being human (that is, being a member or an individual of the human species) implies to be a kind of being that, as a type of being, is capable of having this moral status (for the capability of bearing duties and moral responsibilities is an essential trait of that type – I follow here a thesis stated by Paul Grice).”

    Not all humans develop in this way or continue to have that capcity-what is our non arbitrary obligations to them?- and I would say both Singer and Tooley wouldn’t have a bar of this, for very good reasons. BTW does this mean you are against abortion based on a potentiality argument?

    Of course, If by ‘person’ we mean, as in White’s opinion, a “being that is alive and aware, feels pleasure and pain, has emotions and a sense of self, controls its actions, recognizes other persons and treats them appropriately, and has higher order intellectual skills like the ability to learn, communicate, solve complex problems and engage in abstract thought”, then, well, dolphins would be persons (and possibly other non-human animals also, like chimps).

    “recognizes other persons and treats them appropriately,” would they?

    “But, would be that the concept of person commonly used by moral and political philosophers? I don’t think so. In moral and political philosophy, thinkers usually make reference to a special kind of being with the capability of creating rights and duties, a kind of being that can bear responsibilities.Is that kind of being a “person”? Certainly. Actually, they are the paradigm of persons. But responsibilities imply two subjects: in one side, the duty-bearer; in the other side, the beneficiary. Geoffrey Warnock wisely said in The object of morality that there are individuals that can be both agent and patient of moral actions; nevertheless, there are beings that cannot bear responsibilities, yet are moral patients. ”

    I must admit that I’m not up to speed on all this but at least as far as rights and desires reciprocation of certain basic rights isn’t necessary, only the desire. Having said that when I read of people saying well moral beings are those that can maybe make moral decisions says NOTHING as to moral worth or that they are in fact making the correct moral decision at all.

  • Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo says:

    Simon has made some remarks above on my comment on Lena’s text. Thank you. One of them ends with a question: “Does this mean you are against abortion based on a potentiality argument?” Well, actually no, I’m not against abortion. For several reasons. One of them is that embryos are not human beings (or persons) in the same sense that seeds are not plants. It’s another thing if we think on foetus. But even in the case of foetus, we don’t count them as individuals of a determinate breed. Actually we cannot have any necessity of taking human embryos as human individuals (or as individuals of the our specie or of our “natural type”, that is “humans”); they are not also persons in strict or even in the very non strict sense of being a member of the “human” type (a type of being that has “rationality” as an essential trait – I think “rationality” in the sense of Harry Frankfurt and others, a capacity of having second order desires, a capacity that dolphins don’t have, that is, we don’t have any evidence that they have). But my main point is similar of yours: the moral value of some being doesn’t depend on the fact of its being a person (in the sense of a member of the type of being that exemplifies paradigmatically persons in a stric sense). But it doesn’t imply that all valuable beings have the same moral value. Persons have some claims against persons that other beings don’t have. Would it be a kind of speceism? Probably, but it is sensible.

  • Simon says:

    Marco I like others use Human being to mean Homo Sapiens by definition and agree traditionally this means they aren’t by definition persons. But my work argues this is a ontological classification error and like other instances of artificial machines where you have latent capacities, it is quite consistent to classify any machine with latent cpacities as that type of machine.

    Next I don’t know wherte you get the idea that a Homo Sapiens foetus isn’t a Homo Sapiens it is quite clear cut from biology and embryology that it is. Neither Singer or Boonin have any problem with is.

    The reason I asked if you were using the potentiality argument and were against abortion is that the simple fact concerning your solution -which seems incomplete- is that neither an infant or a foetus traditionally is a person and unless you wish to be arbitrary one should be able to treat them the same.

    Lastly as Singer points out you can hardly be thought to be acting morally if you are acting arbitarily hence specesim like raceism is wrong even if sensible to you.

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