You’ve stumbled upon a group of beings. For all you can tell, these beings are self-aware, intelligent, have emotions, solve complex problems, and call each other by name. They have thoughts and feelings and probably experience life in a way that is very similar to your own. Are they persons? And do you have moral obligations towards them?
Thomas White, Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, has made news claiming that we have found such a group of beings. In fact, we’ve been living alongside them for a while now. They’re dolphins, and they’re people too. At an upcoming AAAS conference in San Diego, White will be arguing that dolphins deserve the status of “nonhuman persons”. The research in marine science now overwhelmingly shows that dolphins have a highly sophisticated type of consciousness and inner world – and their cognitive capacity is second only to humans (yes, they beat chimps). With such high intellectual and emotional abilities, White claims they are entitled to special moral status and protections. The implications for current practices involving dolphins (in the context of fishing, entertainment, research and the military) are serious, since they would be considered chillingly unethical if they involved human persons.