In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier

April 24, 2008

"Swimming with dolphins" regularly tops lists of things that people would like to do before they die. Part of the appeal arises from the popular view of these animals as symbols of intelligence and friendliness. In his book, Thomas White argues that dolphins can be classified as "non-human persons" - and therefore deserve rights.

White comes from a unique background to pose such questions, as a professor of business ethics and also as a longstanding contributor to dolphin research projects. He does a great job of covering the science of dolphin brains and behaviour in an accessible way, but I have two problems with this book.

First, the evolutionary biology seems shaky in places. For example, White talks about "humanity's claim to the pinnacle of creation", but no evolutionary biologist has made such a claim since the 19th century. We don't sit at the top of a tree like the Christmas fairy. We're down at the end of one branch. Dolphins are at the end of another - and so are lugworms.

To an evolutionary biologist, these are just different branches. Sure, humans have some remarkable adaptations that have enabled us to dominate many terrestrial ecosystems. Our brain is an amazing organ - but so, in their way, are the electrosensory organs of sharks. Our physiology does not elevate us to any "special" status. And if it can't do that for us, then it can't do so for dolphins either.

Moral philosophers have arguably failed to catch up with evolutionary biology, as they still afford us "special" status because of our consciousness. And this leads to my second problem with the book: the notion that moral behaviour may be argued indubitably from scientific facts. Science and ethics have fundamentally different philosophical foundations and cannot be linked in this way.

Rationalist science can trace its philosophical underpinnings to Descartes' "Cogito, ergo sum", where the very act of doubting can be taken as evidence for the certainty of individual existence. But no sensory or scientific evidence can logically refute the arguments of the solipsists and extend that certainty to the existence of others. Although I may be certain that I exist, I can't be sure about anyone else. I might just be a brain in a vat, receiving perceptions of an apparent world around me through wires.

In such a case, it wouldn't matter if I wasn't nice to anyone else in my world - they might not be real, after all. My only reason for being nice to them arises from the possibility that they might be real. So ethics rest on a philosophical uncertainty, in contrast to Cartesian certainty. Instead of "I think, therefore I am", the foundation is "I might not be alone, so I'd better be nice". And that is a personal choice, not a logical imperative. So while White presents the scientific evidence that dolphins exhibit intelligence, albeit of a different kind from ours, it is still up to us whether or not we are nice to them.

White's criteria for "non-human personhood" could also be applied to other marine mammals and great apes, but this is not explored. And what about species that exhibit some, but not all, of White's criteria - such as dogs, perhaps? Should we be "quite" nice to them, or is it all or nothing?

Ultimately, this book is perhaps more stimulating for the questions that it raises than the answers that it provides. But on its central topic of the nature of intelligent life on Earth, I am reminded of Gandhi's quip when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: "I think it would be a very good idea."

In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier

By Thomas I. White
Blackwell
248pp
£45.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781405157780 and 57797
Published 1 July 2007

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