Saturday, 27 February 2010

Dolphins, Non-Human Persons.

Scientists have called for dolphins to be categorised as non-human persons on account of their intelligence levels. I want to think about this and try to journey into the implications of such a status.

Certainly dolphins are very intelligent and display many human qualities, but what would it really mean if they were to have bestowed upon them such a special designation?

Let`s go straight in at the deep end, so to speak! For a start, in keeping with the honorary appellation "non-human person", killing dolphins would have to be re-termed murder. This would immediately render a previous act of killing, an act of murder and would thereby carry the guilt of a crime and possible implications for punishment.
Lets not forget that animals, being of lesser status than humans, are "killed", "slaughtered" or "culled" and the euphemism reflects their lesser standing.

So, why would the intelligence of an animal lead to the elevation of it`s comparative value? Well, we know that it is much harder to be cruel, to a person or animal, if we identify with it. Or, conversely, as we see in acts of genocide or persecution, people to be attacked are dehumanised, they become a faceless, hated or demonic enemy, and, thereby, it is immediately easier to chop them to pieces. We can example this when we consider how difficult it is to rear a sheep or pig, for example, as a pet, and then to send it to slaughter. This fact tells us that when the sheep becomes identifiable as "our sheep" and is imbued with our feelings, it becomes part of us and is then very difficult to re-categorise as food! When we have a bond with persons or animals they become "like ourselves" and as such become part of our group or clan and acquire a position of closeness deserving of protection.

The negative side of perceiving some groups as "other than like us" manifests as racism and demonisation. Where people of another race or creed are seen as outsiders, this very perception makes it easy to be abusive. In a sense, where we have seen racism against blacks, for example, being cruel to them keeps them at a distance and prevents us from seeing them as "like ourselves". So, as we have seen in witch hunts, keeping someone whom we deem to be an outsider, firmly trapped within that class, demands that we should continue being cruel to them. Cruelty helps us to justify our beliefs in the first place, but also keeps us at an emotional distance so that we cannot feel anything for the person we are abusing. If we look at the history of the abuse of black people, we can see that keeping them segregated, degrading them and maintaining their poverty, perpetuates their appearance as people who are "not like us".

When we offer compassion to others, conversely, we are drawing them in as "ones who are like us". The greater the degree of sensitivity we feel, the more humane we are likely to be towards others and the greater our sense of inclusivity. As we study dolphins and see many of our qualities in them, we want to include them as part of us..

We can see that other animals have human qualities too..and a consideration of the humanness of dolphins will naturally lead us to wonder which other animals might also be granted special privilege.( A case for apes and elephants springs to mind. ) Which animals should be deemed "humanlike" and which not? Would the distinction be based upon intelligence, however we should measure that, or upon characteristics that might denote compassion or loving?

But to ask these questions is to arrive at a juncture that spotlights the very reasons we judge or categorise each other, forming positive or negative regard for our fellow human beings. When we find ourselves trying to judge one animal over another, we display our biological tendency towards hierarchy, this time aimed at animals and not our fellows. We are caught in the glare of moral choice as the path of our considerations bifurcate ahead of us..

The consequence of our consciousness in perceiving difference, can lead to good or evil, as we choose. When we raise up one animal as special , against other animals who are not so intelligent and don`t manifest "human qualities", we are in affect, transferring our discriminatory nature onto the animal kingdom. Ultimately, just as we judge and condemn, approve and enhance, reward or demonise our fellows, we will do so with animals. Animals will be victims of racism or prejudice just as we ourselves can be. In the same way that our compassionate embrace will reach out to human beings we can feel to be like us, and our indifference and hostility will damn people whom we feel to be dissimilar, so will the same prejudicial impulse encompass the animal kingdom.

We can see how easy it is to judge, according to simplistic criteria, just who is suitable for inclusion and who is not (see my earlier blog "Compartmental Conscience") and thereby transfer these basic distinctions to a categorisation of animals. Of course, those animals who are characterised by manifest intelligence, lovingness and cuddliness, will be raised up, and those animals with disattributes, such as ugliness, non- human qualities and intelligence that we do not comprehend, may be diminished. It`s subjective. And subjectivity is a dangerous thing.

Which people will we esteem, the beautiful or the ugly? The intelligent or the stupid? I think we all know the frightening answer to this question. Dolphins display similarities to humans......and they are beautiful, smiling creatures, qualities to please us all. In the human world these attributes do very well. In our full breadth of compassion we try to marginalise discrimination against those who don`t have such favour in our eyes and I think, ultimately, we have to be mindful of this in regard to animals too.

More on animals later!!!!!!


  1. A very important observation, indeed! Discrimination in the animal world is really parallel to discrimination in the human world.