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.