The Dolphin Person

I have nothing against dolphins. In fact, I find them delightful. However, the scientific understanding of them as individuals, raises a few questions.

The Centre for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles has come up with a ten-point charter for “life, liberty and wellbeing”, among others.

A group of scientists and ethicists argues there is sufficient evidence of the marine mammals' intelligence, self-awareness and complex behaviour to enshrine their rights in legislation. Under the declaration of rights for cetaceans, a term that includes dolphins, whales and porpoises, the animals would be protected as "non-human persons" and have a legally enforceable right to life.

Is intelligence the only yardstick to project an ethical perception of rights? This would put to test many humans – the physically handicapped, the mentally challenged, those who behave differently from what is the norm, and those who might not quite fathom the complex nature of abstract thought. There are parts of the world where people still live on basic necessities and follow rudimentary rules of social intercourse.

"Dolphins are non-human persons. A person needs to be an individual. And if individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being. The captivity of beings of this sort, particularly in conditions that would not allow for a decent life, is ethically unacceptable, and commercial whaling is ethically unacceptable.”

The scientists quoted examples of how dolphins know to work on the reward principle. Early experiments conducted on rats have shown similar behaviour. Dogs, as in the Pavlov experiment, expressed their reaction through salivation. There is an understanding where survival makes animals and humans behave in a certain manner.

So, is such ethical treatment based on a human paradigm the right and only one? Protecting a species is fine. But is it really necessary to ‘dignify’ it on the basis of being a ‘person’. This, strangely enough, contradicts the effort to not treat human beings as superior. Then, why elevate only some species to that level?

Animal rights activists might want all animals to be protected. The movement against zoos, cages, slaughter, meat-eating has been active and often vocal. They too use the human in a trapped situation to emphasise the point about rights. It does not quite work because there is a tendency to glamorise and bring out the beast in the person behind the cage or dressed in fur. It sexes up the message.

The dolphin lobby is using a parallel argument by saying that they are ‘non-human persons’ and therefore as good as individuals.

I can see that there is a pecking order here, and wonder just how a species will seek to gain the sanctified position of being human. It really isn’t the best thing to be when the record of human rights is abysmal and the ethics of how certain being are treated as opposed to others affords it less ethical validity than an elephant squashing an ant unknowingly.

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