‘Who’ not ‘what’ - personhood and moral versus legal dolphin rights

Humpback whales in Tonga
Humpback whales in Tonga
What do we mean when we call whales and dolphins 'non-human persons'? What is the difference between moral and legal rights and how is personhood relevant to recognising moral and legal rights?

Some philosophers, such as Thomas I White, now argue that whales and dolphins deserve to be considered as part of the moral community and thus that they have ‘moral rights’. In other words, White suggests that we humans have a moral obligation to protect the rights of whales and dolphins.

This argument is based on the scientific evidence provided by whale and dolphin research over the last few decades which now demonstrates that whales and dolphins have sophisticated intellectual and emotional abilities.  The science shows that some whale and dolphin species have very complex social lives, some even have culture and many engage in long-term relationships with their conspecifics. All this new information means that these species should be treated as a ‘who’ not a ‘what’.

Philosophers such as White argue that the word ‘person’ can be used to describe beings that have such attributes, no matter what the species and whether the law recognises it or not, the evidence shows that whales and dolphins should be treated as non-human persons, not objects or property.

The recognition of cetaceans’ moral rights is the first stage in the process. We use the word ‘recognition’ because we believe that these rights already exist and we humans need to recognised these rights, rather than ‘give’ rights to whales and dolphins.

Our expanding scientific knowledge shows us that, just like us, in order for whales and dolphins to develop completely, flourish and lead a decent life they need to live under certain conditions i.e. in their natural habitat, within their family and social groups, being able to determine their own futures  and free from human harm. The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins addresses these moral rights by stating, for example, that whales and dolphins have the right life, liberty and wellbeing.

Once human societies have made the leap of recognising the moral rights of whales and dolphins we then need to ensure that these rights are protected and this is where legal rights come in to play.

Steven Wise of the Non-Human Rights Project describes the campaign for the legal recognition of cetaceans as ‘non-human persons’ as the ‘container’ in which we would then work to have specific legal rights recognised, such as the right to life and the right not be held in captivity or servitude.

So the first step on the legal journey will be the recognition of dolphins and whales as non-human persons. From there we can begin to look at what this will mean for having specific cetacean rights recognised in law. For example, introducing legislation that will make it illegal to kill or capture dolphins or keep them captive for entertainment.

Please join us in the forefront of this exciting journey by signing the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. Your voice counts.