Tuesday, 21 February 2012

"He thinks he's people!"

So says Mrs Crabapple of Santa’s Little Helper. In the context of the Simpsons it is arguable that he indeed does.
There is a dolphin named Kelly in Mississippi whose star is rapidly rising. She was trained to clear up litter from her pool and rewarded with food every time she removed a bit of paper. So far so cute but Kelly had a thought. She realised that by hiding a piece of paper and tearing off a smaller bit to give her trainer each time, she could reap multiple rewards. An entrepreneur! How Dave must rue Britain’s chronic dolphin shortage!
But Kelly’s ingenuity doesn’t end there. When she one day caught a gull and presented it to her trainer she was given an extra large fish. This set the cogs turning and before long she was teaching ‘gulling’ to the little ones, using a small fish as bait. A mercenary! How I long to insert a Navy SEALS joke here!
Kelly’s story is not new, the Guardian reported it in 2003, but she is back in the papers today as a group of scientists and campaigners have called for a formal declaration of rights for dolphins and other cetaceans. With the aid of her story amongst many others the argument goes that we are now sure that dolphins are sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to justify rights not dissimilar to those recognised for humans. In other words, dolphins are (non-human) people.
I certainly don’t wish to argue here that dolphins are not deserving of rights. In fact I think it likely that sooner rather than later mankind’s attitude to other animals will and should go through a paradigm shift. However, the assertion of ‘peoplehood’ is being made with scant attention to the vast literature on this question. What is at issue is: How do we decide on the objects of our moral system?
Kelly is clearly intelligent to an interesting degree but intelligence isn’t a good indicator of what we deem worthy of ethical treatment. My friend’s 6 month old son Shane couldn’t come up with a gulling scheme for extra snacks but in the event of a fire at Seaworld (you get the point) I’m afraid that it’s him I’m rescuing first.
Perhaps the fact that Shane will become intelligent matters? Not when you consider the range of inflictions that people suffer, limiting their brain power. Valuing the potentially intelligent above the less so in a fire would seem a repulsive way to approach a rescue.
Self awareness may seem like a better indicator of where we should focus our moral intentions but there are other problems here. It’s the suffering itself that we generally see as something to reduce in society, not someone’s awareness that they are a person and are suffering. My awareness that I am someone suffering from excruciating toothache is nothing compared to the damned excruciating toothache itself.
One of the rights for which campaigners are pushing is the right not to be held in captivity. Would Kelly’s awareness that she is in captivity matter? Undoubtedly it would in some way, but awareness isn’t necessary for the moral judgement. If a child is raised by a brutal father in a situation of extreme psychological control, the child may not be aware that her freedom is restricted yet we still judge that she is mistreated. If I don’t realise that a housemate is putting rat poison in my coffee every morning and making me ill, I’m still being wronged.
These questions and many like them mean that there is no clear set of conditions for ‘peoplehood’. A common view is that there should be some kind of sliding scale in how we treat the animal kingdom depending on, say, intelligence. But this runs up against the same problem with valuing intelligence in this way.
One answer may be simply to draw a line under humans; we’re all equally worthy of moral attention but the animal world we’ll work out as we go along. This however is clearly racism: I’m more important than you for no better reason than that you’re a different species.
I, of course, offer no answer here as to how we should view Kelly. These are ongoing debates in the academic world. And I am very sympathetic to the suggestion that we should modify how we treat other creatures. But to skip over difficult questions is likely to damage such a cause in the long run, and is at least intellectually dishonest. Furthermore as computer technology and bioengineering develop the issues will arise again and again.
The arguments in this article are of course well trodden and I have no bibliography to hand.
The following are some of the news links.