ONE OF THE MOST important features of science is that scientific progress regularly leads to important ethical questions. This is particularly true with research about cetaceans — whales, dolphins and the like — because it has become increasingly apparent that the inner life of these nonhumans is more complex than most humans realise. We have learned that their capacity for suffering is significantly greater than has been imagined—which makes much human behavior towards these nonhumans ethically problematic.
There is now ample scientific evidence that capacities once thought to be unique to humans are shared by these beings. Like humans, whales and dolphins are ‘persons’. That is, they are self-aware beings with individual personalities and a rich inner life. They have the ability to think abstractly, feel deeply and choose their actions. Their lives are characterized by close, long-term relationships with conspecifics in communities characterized by culture. In short, whales and dolphins are a who, not a what.
However, as the saying goes, there is good news and there is bad news.
The good news is that the scientific community is gradually recognising the importance of these ethical issues. For example, more marine mammal scientists are steering away from doing research on captive dolphins. More significantly, a small group of experts who met at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in the spring of 2010 to evaluate the ethical implications of the scientific research on cetaceans concluded that the evidence merited issuing a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. This group included such prominent scientists as Lori Marino and Hal Whitehead. Particularly important in this declaration was the recognition that whales and dolphins are persons who are “beyond use”. Treating them as ‘property’ is indefensible.
Unfortunately, while there has been consistent progress in scientists’ sensitivity to the ethical issues, the same cannot be said for those who use cetaceans to generate revenue.
In contrast to the considerable detail devoted to virtually every aspect of dolphin anatomy, physiology and behavior on the US SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Animals website, the discussion of intelligence is so brief and ignores so much scientific evidence that it comes off as a self-serving dodge: “Rating the intelligence of different animals is misleading and extremely subjective”.
Even if this statement is true, it does not explain why no mention is made of research that shows dolphins’ impressive cognitive abilities: to pass mirror self-recognition tests (Lori Marino and Diana Reiss); to comprehend artificial human language (Lou Herman); and to solve problems by advanced planning (John Gory and Stan Kuczaj). The bibliography offered contains nothing more recent than 2003 and, not surprisingly, omits any research that indicates the intellectual and emotional sophistication of these cetaceans.
To its credit, the website of the Vancouver Aquarium notes, “Studies of numerous species of dolphins have shown evidence of high levels of intelligence, including complex social behaviour, detailed memory, self-recognition, and the ability to learn rudimentary symbol-based artificial codes.” However, notably absent from this or any other site connected with a captive facility is any full discussion of the ethical implications of these facts.
Especially troubling is the failure of the industry to respond to the scientific discoveries at issue with any serious re-evaluation of their practices. One of the most important ethical implications of the scientific research on cetaceans is that these individuals are ‘persons’, not ‘property’. Yet captive facilities continue to offer scientifically flawed and ethically unsophisticated defenses for their current practices. Virtually no consideration is given to the ethical status of their captive breeding programs. Treating self-aware beings as a commodity whose reproduction is managed for economic advantage is, no matter what benefit it produces, fundamentally offensive from an ethical standpoint.
It is, of course, no surprise that the managers, employees and researchers affiliated with enterprises that make money using captive whales and dolphins do a poor job of being sensitive to the ethical implications of the progress of marine mammal science. These people are caught in a classic conflict of interest. On the one hand, they have a duty to protect the welfare of the cetaceans in their care. On the other hand, their jobs and careers depend on keeping the current business model intact for as long as they can.
Predictably, when there’s money on the line, people will not only rationalise all sorts of actions, they’ll even believe their own rationalisations. As we saw with the 2008 economic meltdown, individuals running banks and financial institutions on Wall Street were so blinded by a desire to maximise profits that they not only ran their own companies into the ground, they put the economy of the entire planet at risk. When we humans are so ready to turn a blind eye to actions that risk hurting ourselves for the sake of profit, it comes as no surprise that we’ll readily ignore the possibility of hurting other intelligent species.
All of the organisations that use captive cetaceans say they are strongly committed to the welfare of the whales and dolphins under their care. Given the ethical challenges that have come from the progress of scientific research over the last 30 years, the question is whether these organisations will respond appropriately on their own or whether they will increasingly become the targets of controversy and consumer boycotts.
The ultimate irony in this situation is that—as was the case with the Wall Street banks that were sunk by greed and poor business judgment—the business model in place at the companies that make money from captivity is not even the best one to maximise profits. The progress of marine mammal science combined with the activities of cetacean advocacy groups will increasingly cast these operations in an ethically questionable light with consumers. At the very least, these facilities will have to expend money just to keep their customer base. More importantly, the primacy of technology in the lives of young people provides these operations with a perfect opportunity to move away from the enormous ongoing costs connected with maintaining live whales and dolphins. Sophisticated multi-media (HD, 3D, IMAX) presentations would not only be more scientifically accurate, more interesting and more acceptable from an ethical perspective than live display, they would also be vastly more profitable over the long term.
We are left, then, with an interesting—but troubling—conundrum. If moving away from using captive whales and dolphins is both the right thing to do and more profitable than current practices, why isn’t it happening?