Are Dolphins Persons?

India has banned holding dolphins captive for entertainment purposes. The act doesn’t concern me, at this point; I’m unsure how to tease out our relationship with creation, especially in terms of captivity or the ‘taming’ of animals. Christians may be able to encourage captivity of animals under the clause of “[ruling] over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” We could also argue that part of righteous rule is loving our ‘subjects,’ so to speak, and that captivity is intrinsically against this idea.

But the fascinating bit of the decision—as is often the case—is the reasoning behind it. The Central Zoo Authority of India had this to say about dolphins:

Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.

I’m  not sure what a non-human person is, but that seems to be the hinge of the argument. There are other pragmatic concerns (dolphins are more likely to die in captivity, for instance), but those are less concerned with the necessary reality of captivity; that is, a practical concern is one that we can learn to overcome, while the nature of the thing (i.e., a ‘non-human person’) would make all captivity immoral. Questions of personhood are familiar to proponents of the pro-life debate, and those who have entered into serious science fiction might have dealt with the questions as well (clones, aliens, any number of other fictional possibilities). But we don’t often deal with the question outside of humanity, at least with living creatures here on earth.

So what makes a person? Well, Chisholm helps us frame the question:

An answer would take the form “Necessarily, x is a person if and only if …x …”, with the blanks appropriately filled in. More specifically, we can ask at what point in one’s development from a fertilized egg there comes to be a person, or what it would take for a chimpanzee or a Martian or an electronic computer to be a person, if they could ever be. (See e.g. Chisholm 1976: 136f., Baker 2000: ch. 3.)

If I were to argue against dolphin personhood, it is tempting to simply fill in “human” for x above. Unfortunately, this question begging doesn’t really end up taking us anywhere. Ultimately, we’d end up setting up ‘human’ and ‘person’ as essentially equivalent in the initial definition, which removes even the possibility of discussion of other candidates for personhood. It is possible that ‘person’ is best defined as human, to an argument for personhood can’t start there.

So let’s assume that we have to define ‘personhood’ using something deeper than just ‘human.’ The first obvious fact of personhood is that any given human must be classified as a person. We grant rights, and some we believe are inalienable, to all persons, but no one disputes that humans are persons (or shouldn’t; we’ve got a bad history with things like slavery, but we’re making progress). So if we came up with a definition of personhood that wasn’t fluid enough or broad enough to include a human, we’ve failed in our definition.

But is it possible that personhood is bigger than just humanity? That’s at least the assumption behind the dolphin argument. I’ll start by saying this: if you asked me on the street what endowed human beings with personhood, as it were, I’d likely say something akin to “all persons are made in the image of God.” Any and every bearer of the image of God is deserving of certain rights and graces, or at least we should be offering those rights to them. This answer necessarily precludes anything non-human, since only humanity is made in the image of God. There is a sense in which God has personhood, of course, but it’s a source relationship as much as anything; the image of God is derivative of God, and so personhood is derivative of something, perhaps some sort of divine personhood.

But I wonder if we can make the argument sans the image of God. Starting with naturalistic evolution, do we have good reason to refrain from granting personhood to dolphins, chimpanzees, or any other intelligent non-human life?

One criterion, tacitly offered by the dolphin argument, is that intelligence is sufficient for personhood. The primary argument for personhood, after all, is that “cetaceans are highly intelligent and sensitive,” and so they deserve some rights as non-human persons. While some argue that intelligence is a poor measure of personhood on the basis of the clear exceptions (those in a vegetative state may appear to lack any intelligence, even if they once had it; more powerful is the example of certain sorts of mental handicaps or deficiencies), but it will be more helpful to deal with generalities rather than exceptions. You can say a family is kind and mean it, even if there’s an unkind uncle. Perhaps not every member of a species is intelligent, but that shouldn’t preclude the species from being classified as intelligent. There will always be outliers.

But is intelligence enough for us to grant personhood? Science fiction has been asking this for years, though usually in terms of artificial intelligence. Should we grant rights to the appearance of intelligence that we see in computers or holograms? Perhaps one day AI technology will reach a point where we have genuine intelligence (though I have my doubts about the viability of this), and if that happens we’ll find ourselves asking the same questions. But a dolphin is different in significant ways. For starters, there is no feeling of ownership that can come with artificial intelligence. We didn’t create the dolphin, so we don’t have the same rights over it that we might over a mechanical intelligence.

Some might extend ‘intelligence’ to mean something like an ability to plan and put into motion various plans. Others might classify it as the ability to engage in abstract thought (a quick counterargument: do we have a way of confirming that dolphins, who appear to have other intelligent actions, are not capable of abstract thought?). Still others would rest on the issue of the image of God, as my own instincts guide me.

Personhood is difficult to define, that’s certain. It’s an important process to go through, for a variety of reasons. The pro-life movement is one of them, but so are many claims of victimization or oppression. Anytime someone claims that they are treated as sub-human, we have to ask how we treat sub-humans, which usually means identifying some sub-humans. While I remain unconvinced that we should treat dolphins as non-human persons, I recognize that the majority of the strength of my position comes from my religious convictions. I don’t think that weakens them, but it does offer less assistance when arguing in the public sphere.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • biotrom

    What about defining ‘person’ as a being with a rational/immortal soul? I think a rational soul is a completely different thing than intelligence, though the two may be related. The question would then become: Whether dolphins have rational souls?

  • jamesfarnold

    What makes a rational soul “completely different” than intelligence? If you lump “rational” with “immortal,” then you’re really putting a lot more together than I think we can, at least from the premise I attempted to run with (i.e., the naturalistic point of view).

    That said, rational soul might be worth investigating, but perhaps harder to define. Intelligence is something we can, more or less, measure. A soul is a little trickier to talk about. If we define rational soul as “that part of us that does the thinking,” then intelligence is immediately our external referent point. Outside of self-reflection, I’m not sure what we could point to. And if we can’t communicate with dolphins in a way that allows us to learn whether or not they can reflect on their own thoughts, I’m not sure we are in a place to determine if they have a rational soul.


  • Steve

    I’ll reframe the question along the lines of Jeremy Bentham: perhaps the question is not “Can they think?” or “Can they reason?”, but “Can they suffer?”. I also don’t think it’s a black-or-white issue of “personhood” or “not personhood.” I think that most people and societies, whether they realize it or not, tend to place animals along a continuum in terms of what we’re allowed to do with them: the more “humanlike” (whether in ability to think, reason, or suffer, or something else), the more rights we accord them.

    At one end of the spectrum are microscopic animals like bacteria. It would be ridiculous to have an issue with killing bacteria: it’s unavoidable, they’re so tiny you never know when it happens, some can pose health threats, and there is no evidence that they have any kind of cognition at all.

    Few people have issues with killing insects and “minor pests” (but some do, such as followers of the Jain religion).

    Some more people have an issue with the “factory farming” of cattle and chickens in captivity, followed by killing them for food.

    Most people have no problem keeping animals like dogs and cats in captivity, but feel it’s unacceptable to abuse or neglect them (and most Americans would find it unacceptable to eat them).

    Why? Dog owners would probably tell you that a dog has a strong emotional bond with its owner. It clearly can suffer pain and distress, and it’s wrong to cause pain and suffering without a compelling reason (say, during medical treatment), regardless of whether a dog has a soul, or is self-aware, or is made in the image of God.

    To me, the more an animal is capable of suffering — which would seem to correlate with intelligence, evidence of emotions, and self-awareness (e.g., passing the mirror test) — the less comfortable we should feel about inflicting suffering upon it. At the upper end are animals like chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins, who are clearly intelligent, social, and self-aware, and exhibit emotions. If captivity causes them distress (e.g., some captive elephants exhibit behavior changes similar to depression not seen in the wild), and they’re aware of it, I think there is a strong argument against holding them captive.

    That’s the argument from a secular perspective. From a theological perspective, one can make a similar argument from creation stewardship, and our call to be like Christ. Just as God would not willingly cause man to suffer without compelling reason, neither should we do so towards the creation we’ve been given dominion over.

  • Timothy Brahm

    I’ve heard Christian philosophers define a person as “a substance with a rational nature.” I think there’s something to that definition, though I haven’t investigated it thoroughly enough to confidently endorse it.

    I’m not sure what a person is, but I do think there are non-human examples, such as angels and the Triune God.

    I don’t object to your philosophical musings at all, on the contrary I think it’s a very important discussion. But it is dangerous to argue about the category of personhood. I’m disinclined to bring that language into a practical discussion, whether it’s abortion, animal rights or anything else. One of the reasons for this is that there is an ugly history with that word, a history of rationalizing mistreating human beings by declaring them non-persons. More significantly though, I think personhood language has a connotation that all “persons” (whatever they are) have equal value, something I staunchly disagree with.

    As a pro-life advocate, I’m not going to die on the hill that Koko the gorilla is not a person, but I will on the hill that whatever rights and value Koko has, they aren’t the same rights that humans have. I’d prefer to have a discussion about dolphins and what rights and value they have, and whether or not it is ethical to keep them in captivity, and not use the personhood language at all.

  • Josh Brahm

    I’ve got a question about your last sentence, Timothy. If the reason humans ultimately give rights to dolphins based on the “value they have” or their intelligence, won’t that basically be a personhood discussion? It seems like it would sound a lot like a personhood discussion, even if the word “person” isn’t be used. (Unless the discussion is narrowed to how humans should treat God’s creation or why we should avoid inflicting unnecessary pain to animals that can suffer.)

  • Timothy Brahm

    I wrote a long response and decided to e-mail it to you instead, because I’m planning on blogging a reply to this post.