Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Life Imitates Art (or at least television)

BBC News is covering the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS);  and this morning they decided to take on a rather daring paper.  The title of the paper is “In Defence of Dolphins:  The New Moral Frontier,” written by Professor Tom White of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, whose specialty is ethics.  The fact that the AAAS should now be including ethics in its conference agenda should be news enough;  but this paper offered an ethical argument that cetaceans (including dolphins) deserve the same ethical considerations as humans.  In other words both hunting and captivity (including captivity for entertainment purposes at venues such as Sea World) should be ruled illegal on ethical grounds.

White’s argument rests on the following premise (stated in his words):

A person needs to be an individual. If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being.

The paper then outlines the grounds (nicely summarized in the BBC News article) for attributing such individuality to cetaceans, leading White to conclude that dolphins are “non-human persons.”  The timing is such that one wonders whether or not White has been watching television or, more likely, that one of the writers on the production team for Harry’s Law has been taking the 405 over to Loyola Marymount to sit in on White’s classes.  In the January 11 episode of this series, Harry Korn took the case of a woman who “liberated” a gorilla from the animal park in which it was held on the grounds that the animal had “personhood.”  The script for this show provided such a clear exposition of both sides of the case (including one of the best Cliff Notes introductions to the fundamentals of ethics I have encountered) that it is very likely that one of the writers consulted an expert.  (It was also about as up-to-date as one could get, since it showed the gorilla using an iPad, an item that had been in the news only about a month earlier.)  Having now read about White’s current work and taking into account that he is based in Los Angeles, it would not surprise me if he were the expert behind this episode.

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