Cetacean Personhood

Filippo Bertoni and Uli Beisel have written an interesting and intriguing essay on the ethical challenges posed by extending person-status to cetaceans: “More-than-human intelligence: of dolphins, Indian law and the multispecies turn” over at Society and Space. I only wish the terms in which their discussion is framed had been clearer. For example, they provide no working conception of personhood – though there are many philosophical candidates – and their passing allusion to sharing  “somatic sensibilities” is similarly vague. This is a pity because the philosophical and ethical problem they raise is genuine. Should we regard human-style personhood as the tip of an cosmic moral hierarchy from which the only way is down? If not, then how do we negotiate relationships between beings with lives that are phenomenologically different but perhaps not less valuable than humans?


5 thoughts on “Cetacean Personhood

  1. if one wants to effect change in the actual assemblies of governance that rule the lives/living-standards of other critters appeals to (creations of) philosophical concepts seems like one of the least useful way to go, why not instead develop ways of trying to understand what particular interests the power-players at hand are motivated by and get to making relevant instruments to work them in directions that you value?

    1. Your proposals assumes that the only moral difference between creatures are the ones that humans make by acting or speaking about them. To me, this is implausible and ultimately inconsistent. Implausible, because there are physiological and cognitive differences between creatures that allow them to function in some environments or forms of life and not others. Inconsistent, because the assumption that we invent these differences through patterns of governance assigns the role to humans that Medieval nominalists assigned to God: imposing order on an unstructured world. So it’s infinitely more anthropocentric than the position it purports to critique.

      I’m not proposing that we just make up concepts, since I accept that these need to be responsive to the articulation of reality. As a naturalist, I think they should be defeasible, based on our current best knowledge of animal behaviour and neural or cognitive architecture. Unless we do this I can’t see how we could possibly have reasons for altering our practice. Presumably we want to alter our practices to take account of differences between humans and nonhuman forms of life. If we just invent these differences with our power games, the choice between alternative power games is just arbitrary.

  2. was just noting that if you want people to treat other critters differently you need to address them in ways that they will actually respond to, no more no less

  3. Sorry if I misconstrued your last comment (and for accidently spamming your clarification!). I suppose my worry with this is that lots of things respond in lots of different ways. Why should we privilege some kinds of responses – because they indicate intelligenc or self-hood at work, presumably?

  4. no worries, I’m only privileging responses in the pragmatic sense of focusing on (experimenting with) what works to further the political ends that we might desire, not much point in heading too far down the road of trying to negotiate across species and such if we can’t keep our fellow homo-sapiens from ruining the whole biosphere.

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