Friday, April 9, 2010

Trying to Turn Whales Into "Persons"

Paloa Cavalieri is the co-editor and author, with Peter Singer, of The Great Ape Project, which seeks to create a “moral community of equals” among human beings, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos. The point is to “break the species barrier” and bring the entire animal kingdom into the moral community based on “quality of life” utilitarianism of the kind pitched ubiquitously by singer.

Cavalieri is opposed to whaling, and claims their “personhood” justifies a ban. From his article:

We have discovered that whales “sing.” Scientists have explained that whale societies display complex and stable vocal and behavioral cultures previously suggested only for humans. More impressively still, research into whale behavior points to an ability to look to the past, present and future — functions on which consciousness of oneself as a distinct entity existing in time are mounted.

A relevant backward-looking attitude is revealed, for instance, when hordes of whales, returning to their original territory after long-distance trips, first sing the old songs of the previous year, and then the new songs; the existence of a conscious self in the present, with the attendant ability to attribute mental states to others, is apparent in cases of whales doing acrobatic maneuvers to warn approaching vessels of their presence; and female killer whales’ tutoring of their offspring in the dangerous activity of ­shallow-water hunting offers evidence of the capacity for formulating and carrying out plans.

Since, according to current ethical reflection, the concept of being a person is the concept not of belonging to a certain species but of being endowed with certain mental properties — particularly, self-consciousness — whales turn out to be nonhuman persons, thus confirming the moral soundness of both the trend in international law and the intuitive popular view.

No. Whales are not persons. They may be intelligent, but they are not moral beings as humans are, and hence as a species, none have rights or duties–whether toward and from each other, us, or any species with which they come into contact.

There certainly are cogent and important animal welfare principles that could justify a ban on whaling. Unlike a few hundred years ago, the human need to harvest whales is quite low, and moreover, the method of killing is painful and cruel. But whales are not persons, and if they are ever so deemed, human exceptionalism will destroyed. But of course, that’s the point.

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