Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Persons: Ethical, Legal, and Scientific

This month's celestial events may seem quite grounded in comparison to the ethical musings of some researchers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization responsible for publishing Science.  A session focusing on the possibility of defining certain animals as non-human persons publicized a topic blending ethics, laws, and science that emerged no later than the 1960s.

Studies investigating self-awareness have analyzed members of the order Cetaceans, which includes the large marine mammals dolphins, whales, and porpoises.  Humans will not recognize themselves in a mirror until at least 18 months of age, but this ability to recognize one's self is considered paramount to the ability to think about one's own existence.  Awareness of the self is popularly considered a trait unique to Homo sapiens.  However, some studies of dolphins and the great apes, including chimps and orangutans, indicate they too can recognize themselves.  The studies are not perfect, but the results are impressive.

Additionally, other studies of communities of dolphins and whales indicate the individuals possess unique personalities and that others in the group alter their behavior in response to the death of another individual.  That alteration is often called mourning.  These communities of animals therefore possess culture and are capable of sharing information.  The same case for the existence of culture in great apes cites the passing-on of knowledge, or teaching, of tool use from one individual to another.

If these animals are self-aware and have culture, then perhaps they deserve status as non-human persons.  Such status would provide them with legal protection against being murdered, tortured, or kept captive.  Legal arenas have discussed the concept of personhood previously on topics such as slavery, women's rights, and business corporations.  Legal recognition of personhood may bring forth the topic of how non-human persons would be held accountable for their own actions, though.  Such legal technicalities distract from the real issue at hand, which is not how humans can expect to be treated by non-human persons, but how humans should hold each other accountable for their actions towards non-human persons.

Regardless of what, if any, legal action the AAAS session inspires, the topic of how recognizing other species as people would change our own culture is an interesting exercise in creative thinking.
>What would happen to dolphin/whale/chimp exhibits in aquariums, marine theme parks, and zoos?
>What implications would non-human personhood have on the growing eco-tourism market?
>How would traditionally whaling cultures, including those in the Arctic and those along the West coasts of the US and Canada, respond to extending non-human personhood to whales?
>How would legal protection provided to non-human persons differ from current federal or state animal cruelty laws?
>How would granting legal protection to non-human persons impact court cases involving animal rights activism?
>Would cultural history classes be mandatory for zoology students?
>Would anthropologists begin co-authoring primary literature with marine biologists?
>Is the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life a distraction from investigations into the other non-Homo sapiens intelligent life on Earth?

In true starry-eyed-hippie fashion, perhaps all the labels are unnecessary.  If humans are truly a self-aware species, then we should be familiar with both our dependence and our influence upon the other life forms surrounding us, regardless of what labels we give them.  The conversations about defining "person" and the rights non-human persons are entitled to should end because definitions are arbitrary and subject to change over time and between cultures.  If the controversy over "marriage" is any indication, competing definitions of "personhood" may prevent any meaningful conclusions from ever being reached. 

A more useful discussion might emphasize instead the amount of entitlement we experience as humans living in first-world nations and the amount of suffering we humans as a species are willing to inflict on other species.  If those species happen to be chimps, dolphins, or even crows, labeling them persons, non-human persons, something in-between, or even Capulet or Montague, is irrelevant to how we chose to interact with them.  Actions matter and our future interactions with these species will determine how we Homo sapiens - for lack of a better word, define - ourselves.

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