Over at Reason last month, Nick Sibilla took (what I think was) something of a tongue-in-cheek look at the debate about whether or not dolphins and whales should be understood as the bearers of rights:
Depending on the level of rationality, intelligence, and pain sensitivity an animal has, the more rights it should have. Under this ethical framework, a whale or a dolphin would more or less be the moral equivalent of a young child, the mentally handicapped, and possibly a fetus, depending on the latter’s stage of development. Cetacean rights and fetal personhood advocates could become unlikely allies in the years ahead.
I’m not at all convinced that there’s any reason to connect fetal personhood advocates with cetacean rights advocaes, even under the terms that Sibilla puts forward to describe the reason for granting rights to fetuses or cetaceans.
Indeed, if intelligence and rationality are important, then we might conclude that fully-developed cetaceans have substantially more of a claim to the idea of rights than do developing fetuses. And if it’s simply sensitivity to pain, then there’s no reason to stop at cetaceans. It’s undeniable that all sorts of animals at a variety of developmental stages — not just humans or cetaceans — can feel pain.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m unsympathetic to the idea of cetacean rights. Indeed, I wrote about the idea of rights for dolphins in my book on human rights (which was published in 2007):
[T]he conclusion that Rorty has been implicitly suggesting has to do with the way the human mind works [….] Rather than adopt a speciesist line here, let me add that it is not impossible — though it might be a bit far-fetched at this point in time — to imagine a time when people will also speak of the ability of dolphins or chimps to imagine entirely new descriptions of the world. Until that time, however, it seems quite plausible for Rortyans to speak of a single, indivisible unit of human rights: the mind.
This point, about whether or not the minds of dolphins can do the sort of work that the minds of humans can do, actually finds some support elsewhere in Sibilla’s piece:
Dolphins use tools to hunt, turning conch shells into traps and sea sponges into probes and protective gear. There have also been a few cases of cooperative hunting and role specialization. In addition, mother dolphins have also been seen teaching their daughters how to use these tools [….] More impressively, dolphins have been known to delay gratification and plan for the future.
With all of this in mind, I’m much closer to endorsing the idea of cetacean rights than fetal personhood. Fully-developed cetaceans seem to be capable of doing a lot of the things that I think make up personood; the same just can’t be said of human fetuses (at least prior to a certain point in their development).