Do We Have The Language Needed To Grant Dolphins Non-Human Rights?

At the largest annual science conference in the world, finished a few days ago in Vancouver, the call was again made for a Declaration of Cetacean Rights, with the emphasis this time on the fact that dolphins' level of self-awareness is such that they should be considered non-human persons, individuals with an innate right to exist.

It's really a pretty big mouthful conceptually, "non-human persons". But before we delve into attempting to break that down into more manageable bites, here are some of the statements made by the presenters.

Professor Tom White of Loyola Marymount University and author of "In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier":
A person needs to be an individual. If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killed a human being. We're saying the science has shown that individuality, consciousness, self-awareness, is no longer a unique human property. (BBC News)

Emory University's Lori Marino:

Science has shown us that cetaceans have most, if not all, the characteristics humans have, including intelligence, self-awareness, autonomy and social complexity. Their basic needs are very much like humans: To be able to stay alive, to not be confined, to make choice and travel, and perhaps foremost to engage in social interaction. (National Post)

Once you shift from seeing a being as a property, a commodity, a resource, to a person, an autonomous entity that has a right to life on his or her own terms, the whole framework shifts. [Whaling] is not about harvesting resources, this is about murder. (Care2)

Extending Rights To Other Species Doesn't Take Them From Our Own
And one more statement, made by a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, which no doubt echoes the sentiments on some TreeHugger readers and likely many people more broadly. Paul Schratz said:

I sometimes wonder whether we've got our priorities mixed up when we treat animals and the environment with more respect that human beings. There are billions of people around the world who deserve our attention.

Of course the second part of that statement is undoubtedly true. There are indeed billions of people around the world in need of our compassion and attention.

Ultimately compassion, much like willpower, is something that actually grows with use. It's a crop that expands both as you grow it and harvest it. When you start extending outwards your circle of compassion, it's not like you're taking away compassion for those beings already within the circle.

Perhaps attention, in terms of daily active attention, is more limited. For many people there are only so many issues that can be actively engaged with. But what that has to do with extending rights to another group of beings escapes me.

As Nancy Roberts writes over at Care 2, "Opponents [of extending rights to non-humans] seem to assume that compassion is a zero-sum game, as if extending rights to one group means there's less to go around for everyone else."


Our Metaphysics, Our Comprehension, Our Language is Lacking
But none of this really addresses the hard nut in all this: How do we best communicate:

  1. Cetaceans have enough self-awareness and, in effect, culture that they ought to be legally and ethically be considered similarly to humans in terms of our relations with them—they are in fact, for utter lack of specific term, people;
  2. Human beings may be on top of the pyramid of intelligence (let's leave wisdom in applying that aside) but there are enough other species out there that display sufficient intelligence, awareness, and emotion that we can no longer say humans are unique in this regard—and that this recognition doesn't diminish the human experience, or that of the dolphin experience, chimp experience, dog experience, etc.;
  3. Even those species that don't rise fully up to the highest standards of awareness doesn't give humans the right to ignore their right to exist;
  4. All of this fundamentally up-ends the traditional philosophical underpinning of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) in regards to humanity's relationship to the rest of existence insomuch as humans have been given dominion over existence as caretakers, rather than a part of it, as well as the way in which much of science and non-religiously-based philosophy throughout the previous century viewed the non-human world as, at best, instinctual biological machines, full stop. Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism) though not entirely unaffected by the recognition of non-human individuality have far less of shaking of their foundations.

Phew. A long dense list for sure. And no closer to a mellifluous word for "non-human person" or "non-human rights".

Part of the problem is that English isn't equipped with a word (at least I don't know it) that encapsulates the notion of the individual non-human animal endowed with certain innate rights. There's no doubt no word for it in English because it is outside the realm of our popular thought, upbringing, and comprehension.

We have all sorts of words to describe the flesh of animals we've raised for food, which have the effect of distancing ourselves from the living thing (pork versus pig, beef versus cow, etc); and we've got all sorts of creative descriptions of groups of animals (pods of whales, flocks of birds, murders of crows, etc). But none recognize the individual nature of a single dolphin different from other dolphins, a single chimp from the group.

We of course use conventional gender-based pronouns for animals in casual use if we can recognize the sex—and sometimes, with brave researchers, in scientific use—and we name our pets, often treating them better than members of our own species we find distasteful for whatever shallow reason.

But we've not seen the need to come up with a specific word that encapsulates the relationship of you're-an-individual-as-I-am-even-though-we-are-different-species. For now it need not be broken down for different species; just one word that recognizes the individual in non-human species. I think we need that word.

Do We Have The Language Needed To Grant Dolphins Non-Human Rights?
We have all sorts of words to describe animals' flesh, and for groups of animals, but none that recognize their individuality.

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