Are whales and dolphins smart enough to get special rights?

May 21, 2010

whaleSome conservationists and experts on philosophy and ethics reckon that whales and dolphins are so intelligent that they should be given rights to life like humans. That could mean extra pressure on whalers in Japan, Norway and Iceland to end their hunts.

The focus on rights is a shift after conservationists successfully won a ban on almost all whale hunts from 1986, arguing that they had been harpooned close to extinction.

And in recent years (with evidence that some stocks are big enough to withstand hunts), many opponents say the moratorium should stay in place, arguing that shooting grenade-tipped harpoons at whales can mean a long, cruel death.

A conference in Helsinki starting today is called “Cetacean Rights” and is about “fostering moral and legal change”. The experts hope to come up with a declaration during the weekend — if the idea of special rights for marine mammals catches on, it could also limit the ability of marine parks to keep the mammals in captivity.

“We need a shift of values,” said Nicholas Entrup, head of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Germany and Austria. The WDCS is organising the conference.

But would governments listen?

Many favour protection for whales and dolphins but opening the door to non-human rights might also lead to demands for more rights for other mammals, such as elephants, chimpanzees or maybe even your pet dog.

Vegetarianism would become the order of the day if  sheep or cows managed to pass the ovine and bovine equivalents of an IQ test. (I bet you’d be nervous if you went to a lab and the scientist told you: “Pass this simple test and your entire species will be saved: fail and we will eat you”.)

Many religions teach that humans are in a special category on Earth, more intelligent than other creatures.  But evolution shows a sliding scale of smartness — so should animals, starting with the giant marine mammals, have special rights?

(Picture: a humpback whale swims past the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera base, January 2009. Alister Doyle, Reuters)


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It has been proven that dolphins and whales are highly sentient beings, with complex social structures and family bonds. They are self-aware, they use language –complete with different dialects based on locality and family bonds–and they pass their culture on from one generation to the next.

While all life is sacred, and we should be treading as respectfully and lightly on this ocean-dominated planet as we can, it seems to me that cetaceans in particular merit special consideration.

Our arrogance in thinking that humans are uniquely “intelligent” is a hold-over from the time when all animals were viewed as nothing more than limitless sources of income. This anthropocentrism was the reason why, one by one, whale populations were brought to the brink of extinction by whalers intent on profit. It is also the reason why the Baiji river dolphin has gone extinct in our lifetime as human greed led to insurmountable environmental and acoustic degradation of the their habitat.

Whales and dolphins should not be hunted, and they should not be held captive in tanks that are cruelly small. They deserve far better than what we humans have so far shown them, and we should respect their right to be, and celebrate their uniqueness.

Posted by KGUTI | Report as abusive

KGUTI: You’re an idiot

Posted by bobhey | Report as abusive

Unfortunately the human arrogance that assumes the entire earth and everything on it exists for our exclusive benefit regardless is deeply entrenched and is not based entirely on economics. It is also reinforced culturally not least by many religions, more particularly those that were born in societies where earnings in excess of that needed for comfort developed.

Ultimately it is of course economic in the sense that exploitation provides income but its also about power and keeping that power (and money) in as few hands as possible.

We are but a small part of the greater whole and it shames us all that this question even needs to be asked.

Posted by liquidculture | Report as abusive

Cetaceans have *earned* special rights from humans by acts of compassion to humans throughout history. As far back as humans have gotten in trouble at-sea, dolphins have been saving humans’ lives, towing them to shore, protecting them from sharks… Of course they have intelligence and self-awareness, but this is incidental to the issue – They display acts of kindness and heroism to members of our species, yet we have whole industries dedicated to killing them for profit. They aren’t just smart, they’re better than we are in the ways that truly matter, displaying decency as few humans do these days.

Posted by WmCarterElliott | Report as abusive

[…] and dolphins should get “human rights” to life and liberty because of mounting evidence of their intelligence, a group of conservationists and experts in philosophy, law and ethics said on […]

Posted by “Human rights” urged for whales & dolphins – is this a good idea? « Read NEWS | Report as abusive

Interesting studies always come out of Helsinki! Suzanne

Posted by suznorwex | Report as abusive

Religion has been dumbing down societies for ages. When are people going to stop looking at bible for all of our answers? The earth is not the center of the universe and man was not created from a rib or simply created in a day. The bible offers good moral stories and christian mythologies — however, it was never meant to be used for scientific purposes. We need to understand that other animals are very special too. Instead of spending billions on finding extra-terrestial life how about we spent money on intelligent life here on earth? Imagine what we could learn from the dolphins. They were once land animals just like us who decided to go back to the ocean. Not a bad idea. We are the only species who foul their own nests and we are ruining the entire planet. If you care about this issue I encourage you to visit –

Posted by KC4animalrights | Report as abusive

I agree it arrogant for humans to feel so superior that other highly intelligent and social animals such as dolphins and whales can me mercilessly killed.

More about this issue:  /7778282/dolphin_and_whale_warsthe_figh t_to.html?cat=4

Posted by 11Trader | Report as abusive