IEET > Rights > Personhood > Contributors > Kyle Munkittrick
Dolphins as Non-Human Persons
Kyle Munkittrick   Jan 5, 2010   Pop Transhumanism  

I have been lucky enough to swim with dolphins twice in my life. Once it was as a “swim with dolphins” experience in Mexico where I was pushed around by the dolphins in an awesome little display of power and warned not to “pet them on the tummy, or they might get horny, and, by extension, violent.” It is a strange thing to be cautious not to arouse a cetacean.

The second time was snorkeling, when a pod of dolphins came out of the deep and decided to investigate my dad and me for a few minutes before getting on their way. In both cases, the dolphins were visibly intelligent. It was like the uncanny valley in reverse – instead of a lifelike body with dead eyes, I was confronted with unsettlingly intelligent eyes within an inhuman body.

Because the environment of humans and dolphins so rarely intersects, it is much harder for us to observe and casually appreciate dolphin intelligence the way we do with chimps and parrots. Furthermore, dolphin faces are not as familiarly emotive. Thus, the news in The Times about a scientific consensus is developing around the rights of dolphins as non-human persons is fantastic. Here comes a huge chunk of the article summarizing all the reasons why:

Dolphins have long been recognised as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioural studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.

It has also become clear that they are “cultural” animals, meaning that new types of behaviour can quickly be picked up by one dolphin from another.

In one study, Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, showed that bottlenose dolphins could recognise themselves in a mirror and use it to inspect various parts of their bodies, an ability that had been thought limited to humans and great apes.

In another, she found that captive animals also had the ability to learn a rudimentary symbol-based language.

Other research has shown dolphins can solve difficult problems, while those living in the wild co-operate in ways that imply complex social structures and a high level of emotional sophistication.

What makes the assertion of dolphin personhood so important is that the first recognition of personhood rights in a non-human, even if limited, will have tremendous, spectacular ripple effects. If we accept dolphins are non-human persons, say, with limited rights akin to that of a human child then here are some logical conclusions one might be able make:

1. Dolphins could have limited sovereignty rights, making the oceans they patrol effectively their territory. The ocean might become a UN protectorate.

2. Dolphins would no longer be in zoos and aquariums. It would be tantamount to imprisonment.

3. Alternatively, state funding for the study of dolphins would skyrocket. To ensure the law is accurate and neither a farce nor insufficient, a very accurate, very clear understanding of dolphin intelligence would be needed.

4. Dolphin deaths would become literal murders and deaths resulting from fishing would become genocide.

Without a near global consensus on the issue, it will be nearly impossible to recognize dolphin personhood. Can you imagine the equivalent of the COP15 dealing with international animal rights?

Kyle Munkittrick
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


This would be great practice for dealing with the eventual issue of the rights of Artificial Life Forms as well. I hope someone creates an activist group to pursue this.

What I’m hoping is that it doesn’t get hijacked by PeTA or the Animal Liberation Front and is instead brought under the jurisdiction of a more rational, policy oriented non-profit organization. When someone panics and asks “does this mean ALL animals have the same rights as HUMANS?” We need an organization that will say, “No, just those animals deemed to have intelligence traits x, y, and z. All others remain under the traditional rubric.”

I’ve added some extensive comments to a recent Times article on “dolphin intelligence,” highlighting how utterly riven with human-centric assumptions and solipsism so much of this “research” seems to inevitably become:

P.C.‘s comment above that these questions will, inevitably, come to be relevant for non carbon-based life is deeply insightful, and one that seems to be all but absent on these areas of discourse thus far.

With respect to Kyle’s concerns about the “hijacking” of such discussions by animal rights groups (who, to be fair, did huge amounts of heavy lifting in past decades to put these questions on the table in the first place), I prefer to see the opportunity to expand mutual understanding and areas of shared agreement between “them” and “us” rather than simply assuming inevitable conflict. The way to impact the animal rights community is not by reacting defensively to specific manifestations of unwise behavior by front-line activists but, rather, to engage with the intellectual center of the movement in an academic context and broaden the scope of overall discourse as a result.

I’m not saying this is easy, or guaranteed to succeed. Yes, I speak from extensive firsthand knowledge of such challenges - anyone curious can check into my own personal background and sexual orientation and see how I face these challenges at the most intense levels of discourse. However, if the alternative is nearly-mindless conflict and “discussion” that’s little more than yelling back and forth across a fence, I’d at least prefer to try to build intellectual bridges and expand shared understanding… even if it fails 99% of the time. The change that the 1% of success will spark creative new avenues and collaboration and transformative dialog is more than worth it when the alternative is 100% guaranteed failure on these fronts.

Fausty |

Just noticed the mention of the “similar to human children” trope in this post, and I have to say that’s exactly the WRONG path to follow in exploring how to systematically integrate non-human persons into our moral framework. It seems tempting—children need ‘protection’ and are cherished by their parents, so what could go wrong? However, it’s proven to be disastrous when applied to companion animals—the end result is the infantilizing of the Other, a failure to genuinely respect them as self-sufficient individuals, and a total lack of appreciation for them as fully-formed beings that aren’t merely less-complete shadows of adult humans.

Categorizing adult, sentient, nonhuman people as “like human children” extends to assumptive stance of human superiority to an almost self-satirical level: we’re the “daddy species” and everyone else is babies. Not at all acceptable. Plus, the inevitable discomfort and tendency to deny what we see when these fellow sentient critters do rather non-childlike things such as, well, such as have wildly raunchy and enjoyable and uninhibited sexual adventures for example (something not at all uncommon in dolphins) leads to ugly dead-ends. After all, if we have to force children not to participate in “adult” activities, shouldn’t that also apply to the “children” who are nonhuman adults?

It’s just proved to be a really short-sighted distraction from the real work of developing newly-structured moral categories to encompass people who aren’t naked primates into our moral universe in a formal way. They aren’t children, adult dolphins that is, any more than a 2,000 pound adult stallion is “like a child” because he doesn’t have the cognitive structures necessary to do vector calculus.

Fausty |

Fausty writes: “...any more than a 2,000 pound adult stallion is “like a child” because he doesn’t have the cognitive structures necessary to do vector calculus.”

Stallions, no, but dogs, yes:
“Mathematician’s Dog Knows Calculus”


If you’re going to use quotes, please use my exact phrasing. I said “limited rights akin to that of a human child” in reference to dolphin rights and the article said, “intelligence levels of three-year-old children” in reference to chimpanzee intelligence. These are two context-specific usages of “child,” neither of which is infantilizing.

Given the still very, very rudimentary development of animal rights and animal intelligence studies that have occurred, it is out of necessity that we analyze animals using an anthrocentric yardstick. The closest thing we have to an objective scale is Steven Wise’s intelligence measurement, but even that uses the baseline of 1.0 as “adult human intelligence.” There is, for now, no other way to relate to intelligence because we don’t know how to quantify it. Only qualitative comparisons can be made.

Furthermore, the comparison could be more aptly phrased as “these animals can do things that require at least the intelligence of a human three-year-old” meaning the way, method, and even cognitive processes and potentials involved could be totally different from humans and that there is room to adjust the measurement. If you’ll notice, the article also compares dolphins to chimp intelligence as well. The beginning of a total-species intelligence scale is already in the works.

As for my actual comment “limited rights akin to that of a human child” I was discussing the concept of “child” within a legal framework. A child can own property, have a right to life and safety, can be held morally accountable, are presumed semi-autonomous, and have a plethora of other rights that non-human persons currently do not. A child, however, cannot vote or consent to sex with an adult because they, like dolphins, lack the rational capacity to do so. That is what I was arguing. While you get your panties in a twist about my allegedly hegemonic and paternalist discourse, I’m trying to find a reasonable starting point for this whole mess. I WANT non-human persons to have their rights recognized. There is no precedent for animal rights of this degree, however, so we have to start with some sort of analogy.

In no sense does either construction of “child” require or even imply that we reject, negate, or minimize the natural behavior of adult animals. I began my post noting the amount of respect I had for dolphins as adult animals, including an anecdote about being sure not to accidentally touch their genitals and cause arousal, which can be frustrating and enraging for the dolphins. No where in my post or the quoted article can you actually demonstrate “infantilizing of the Other.” If you’re going to try and pull critical theory cards and throw around 10-dollar words, I suggest you at least get your quotations right and pay attention to context.

Given my academic background and research interests, I’ll take is as a compliment that apparently I able to “pull critical theory cards” (from a secret deck that has been handed out, perhaps, to select systems theory researchers?). I’m not sure whether I was merely “trying” to throw around 10-dollar words, or actually succeeding - but I’d love to know which of my words has such worth. There might be a secondary market I could tap to earn some extra cash.

At the risk of being tarred with the dreaded “critical theorist” label, I’ll take an opportunity to explain to you that when human beings use metaphorical or syllogistic comparisons to say one thing is “like” another thing - and we use them alot, indeed it’s the very foundation of our narrative-centric way of making sense of the world around us (sorry, drifted a bit into neuroscience there) - we don’t get the luxury of taking select bits and pieces of such metaphorical comparisons while unilaterally leaving behind any inconvenient bits. If I were to compare you to a spoiled kindergartener, you would be (justifiably) less than happy - because such a comparison brings along with it more than just the trite claim that “I was only suggesting that - like a spoiled teenager - you are a land-based mammal and thus don’t do well in underwater environments.” See how that works? Babies and bath water come to mind.

It is for that reason that using the “rights of children” as a foundational metaphor/simile/model for non-human ethical positioning is a Bad Idea. It has proved, already, to be a Bad Idea in the decades it’s been used by conventional animal rights. If that’s a field you’ve simply avoided studying so that you are able to reinvent its wheels, sui generis, I’d suggest you shouldn’t be surprised if some of us occasionally say “we tried that already, it didn’t work - but if you want to try it again and get the same result, I guess nobody can stop you.” You are, of course, free to ignore such findings and try to prove that it is actually a good idea to compare adult, sentient, self-aware, fully-formed critters with human children - in terms of legal rights - but I am free to point out it’s a bad idea and has not worked well in extensive past deployment.

Note that I did not provide a better alternative metaphor, other thank “rights akin to that of a human child.” I’m not sure what that next-stage metaphorical framework is, to be honest. So I’m not putting forth a stalking horse that I claim is an improvement over the child metaphor - merely arguing that smart folks needs to look hard at that problem and seek to create possible alternatives. A failure to do so - which is exactly what using the child metaphor is, even if one admits it is “limited” in usefulness - simply locks in the known flaws of the child model, and locks out the conversational space needed to explore non-child conceptions of the rights of the other living critters who share our planet.

I will leave you to your hyper-sensitive concerns about accusations of “hegemonic and paternalist discourse” as those words burst forth from your own fervid imagination - not from my comments. You seem to have reflexively slotted me into the role of the dithering postmodernist cultural theorist, titling at the solid windmills being constructed by you Serious Scientists up above such petty concerns as ours. That’s an interesting conceptual landscape, but I’m badly mis-cast in that role - and I suspect you are, as well. Had you taken the time to perhaps confirm some of your assumptions about who I am before broadcasting them publicly, I suspect you might have found a much more fertile ground for discussion and, heaven forbid, reciprocal learning.

As it is, you seem far to hypersensitive about your intellectual credentials and eager to toss attacks at anyone not immediately awed by your use of - how shall we put it - five dollar “science-y” words. You are deeply ignorant of whole swaths of existing academic and practical work on topics in which you claim to have a central interest. It’s a shame you lack the social skills to encourage those with such knowledge to share it willingly and in a spirit of mutual respect. Such epistemological dead-ends tend to be self-reinforcing in constructing well-buffered little ponds in which each self-appointed big fish can rule supreme.


(CV, for those curious:

@ Fausty

1. You’re right, my response was over-aggressive. I apologize.
2. Thanks for the explanation of figurative language.
3. “Categorizing adult, sentient, nonhuman people as “like human children” extends to assumptive stance of human superiority to an almost self-satirical level: we’re the “daddy species” and everyone else is babies” - is where I got “paternalistic and hegemonic.”
4. I AM a critical theorist and trainng bioethicist, not a Serious Scientist.
5. I like public arguments with strangers. They’re cathartic and they force me to admit my mistakes.

Now that we’ve got the huffing and puffing out of our system, on to the debate at hand!

The core of our argument is still over the category of child. The legal framework for “non-adult (human)” applies to anyone with restricted rights. A child is in that category, as are felons and some of the mentally disabled. This is not a judgment of their quality as people or their other adult capacities, but of their ability to understand, consent to, and participate in the social contract. Humans are already granted rights in stages (age of consent, age of voting/smoking/porn/draft, age of drinking) and our judicial system makes individual judgments based on a persons perceived maturity.

I am in full support of a legal system based on personhood, basically as described by James Hughes, but getting there, I fear, is going to be incremental and problematic - in large part because humans are the only rubric we have to work with at the moment.

Bringing non-human persons into the “least” of these categories, “child,” is still a major step in the right direction, not a Bad Idea. It is the opposite of Otherizing, by saying “we will treat this animal not just humanely but as legally equal to a sub-set of humans.” I suspect that the legal precedent used for dolphins will be somewhere in the range of human teenagers, autonomy with limited interaction in the global social contract. The important thing is that there MUST be a precedent, even if it is a heavily modified one. The precedent of non-adult humans is the best we’ve got for non-human persons.

As an example I would take the rights of a 17 year-old in most US states with the following modifications:

1. Sovereignty would be de facto. Dolphins would not have to “claim” independence, it would be inherent. Not “wards of the state” or anything else, full autonomy. Additionally, some form of national recognition would be necessary. I imagine this would be a combination of the reservation system in the US, refugee status, protectorate states (e.g. Guam), and new laws.

2. All sexual activity laws would be null-and-void except for the statutory rape clause. Instead of merely falling under bestiality law (which is more about morality than the animal’s rights) statutory rape would apply to any human who attempted rape or raped a non-human person.

3. Violence against a non-human person would be precisely equivalent to violence against a human person. As it stands in our system, those convicted of intentionally killing a non-adult often suffer far more severe punishment. Killing a single dolphin would be murder, hunting them would be a war crime.

In short: dolphins, as the first non-human persons, would have a status somewhere within the intersection of 17-year-old humans, non-sovereign nation states, and autonomous adults. Their rights would almost entirely be based in negative liberty. Violating their territory (i.e. environment) and killing them for any reason would be crimes under international treaty and the UN. The study of dolphins, whose nation might be treated as an ally akin to Japan or Israel (our military is your military), would receive funding not just from the NSF but the Depts. of State and Defense.

Yes, there are discursive problems of which we have to be very very careful. The benefits of doing it right, however, far outweigh those risks.

I was lucky enough to be able to interact with wild dolphins in Tangalooma, Australia. Do some research on those dolphins. There’s definite intelligence. They come back night after night, because they know that they’re getting a free meal. Though wild, they’ve built a relationship of trust with the marine biologists who study them, and how can an ‘unintelligent beast’ possibly do that?

De-huffing and de-puffing appreciated.

Now, while I can quibble with some of the specifics of what “rights” are attributed to non-humans (and indeed question whether the framework of “rights” is the best path to lessen the destructive, self-centered nature of humanity’s interactions with the rest of the living world), in general terms most all of us are going to be in relative agreement with respect to what is and is not acceptable behavior between species.

However, again I’ll state that couching this positioning of nonhumans using the *language* and metaphorical example of human children is a Very Bad Idea. It has already proved to be a Very Bad Idea, a dead-end. Ask 100 humans how they view non-humans and many of them will already make the “like children” comparison in general terms. True, it’s not written into law in terms of “rights” but it is already a metaphorical presence in our cultural landscape.

And it’s a disaster. It embeds, at the most fundamental level, an iron-clad assumption that every other living being on the planet is LESSER than humans. That’s a terrible idea, and it’s the kind of thing that, once accepted, grows deep roots and resists being removed. We’ve already done that, and we’ve already found ourselves in this rhetorical dead-end where we’re debating whether - and which - species count as “like human children” and which don’t. Do you see how far into the weeds the well-intentioned conflation of nonhuman adults and human children has gone?

Dr. Peter Singer has vehemently argued against this “animals as children” fallacy, for years. As a founder of the modern animal rights movement, I think he’s got some credibility in his position. That sanctimonious, smug, self-important tendency humans have about everyone else is *perfectly* reinforced by the paternalistic usage of adult :: child language to structure our thinking about other sentient species (and, referring backwards, I now see where your paternalistic whiff was found in my earlier post - and accept that it was thus an “earned” criticism of my position). Worse, once laid down it resists all efforts to support the kind of growth, evolution, and longer-range adjustment that you rightly state is necessary.

Yes, it’s tempting. We already have the “children” legal category in western jurisprudence. And there’s some good things about how we see children: we protect them, we try not to kill them. There’s just as much that’s laughably off-base: the sex question is perhaps most obviously self-satirical. We don’t like it when children have sex with each other - and it’s illegal if their ages are too far apart. Do we now police the rest of the living world to make sure nobody bonks someone else in an “inappropriate” way? Obviously not - and the paternalistic stance that would grant humanity some sort of de facto ability to make such decisions “on behalf of” other sentient beings is clearly absurd.

If you take the “like children” stance on rights, you do NOT get to pick and choose which similarities are retained: they all come along. Down that road lies madness, wherein it’s perfectly acceptable to castrate non-humans but it’s a “crime against children” if they choose to engage in sexual intimacy. This isn’t hypothetical; it’s the sort of semantic hairball that already exists, largely due to the prevalence of the “fallacy of animals as children” meme that’s long since burst forth from its good intentions and now runs amok.

I respect and appreciate your sense of urgency that compels you to support using already-existing categories of legal rights (i.e. “like children”) and port them over to non-humans. Just don’t ignore the lock-in effect that such shortcuts inevitably carry - and like most lock-ins, the cost of switching increases dramatically the longer such hacks are used; they become embedded in so many areas of thinking that they become impossible to remove, later on. For you, it’s easy enough to see that “like children in terms of legal rights” is NOT the same thing as “they’re like little children, all furry and innocent and cute.” However, take the concepts and put them into real-life usage, run through the media machine and digested by 100 layers of human chatter, and guess what? That careful delineation you retain is long gone, and we get “animals = children” as a fundamental equation. Indeed, we already have that - and it’s a mess.

Building on your excellent point that these questions will become relevant for non-carbon intelligences in the fairly near future: do we treat THEM as “like children,” metaphorically? Hopefully not! Whatever they are (or will be) they are NOT human children in any sense - binding such entities to that kind of fallacy would be as disastrous as has been the well-intentioned desire to “protect animals” by drawing on deep cultural support for the protection of children.

There’s a far, far deeper issue here of what it REALLY means to respect and interact with another being who is neither “greater” than oneself, nor “less than” oneself, nor indeed any kind of blurred image of oneself but rather a genuine Other. As humans, we’re stretched to our cognitive capacity to do so - but we DO have the ability. Those of us who interface already with non-humans in non-paternalistic, long-term, mutually respectful relationships live and breathe such questions and challenges on a daily basis. It’s ONLY when you let go of feeling superior and automatically better than the Other that you will learn anything worthwhile from such relationships - and only through that letting go that you will ever discover that Other in the first place, rather than merely a blurred mirror image. It requires a profound, relativistic shift in perspective to engage in this process - this shift is sabotaged out of the gate insofar as cognitive crutches such as the “like children” one are used. We’re symbolic creatures, our symbols matter.

That is what’s largely missing from our language of exploring non-human relationships. We’ve lost the millennia-deep skills of genuine human symbiosis with non-humans: the Mongol tribes who were so intertwined with their equine symbionts that it was almost hard to disentangle the two species, for example. Now, we tend to see “everyone else” as little disney characters - cute, fuzzy, occasionally useful, sort of pathetic and limited by default. That’s a terrible long-term trend that has come to its nadir in humanity seeing the rest of the living world as “like children” in many metaphorical senses. It’s left us utterly unprepared for any kind of productive interactions and relationships with non-human intelligences, be they machine-based, marine mammalian, or from outside our planet.

We’ve already infantalized the world around us so much that we have gone a long way towards infantalizing ourselves. The best time stop stop this silly, nonsensical mis-application of logical categories is now. Adult animals aren’t “like” human children in any but the most trivial of attributes and slamming that square peg into the inappropriate round hole is totally wasted, and distracting, effort. Time to take the square peg, sit back, look around, and find the SQUARE hole in which it’s best placed. Metaphorically speaking, that is…

Fausty |

Ok so i have read some your comments left. And there are a few points i need to make. First i recommend reading “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Morale Frontier” if you haven’t already. Second from my own eperiences and other articles that i have read dolphins seem to actually be more intellegent than we in som aspects. Now take this with a grain of salt because i understand that you may say “well they haven’t accomplished what we have.” You are right they haven’t but they can’t and don’t need to either. Their social intellegences outmarks our any day because their societies are all build around trust and communication to where ours is not so much up to that level of sociability. They are capable of using tools as we are except they don’t have hands, which shows they are very good problem sovlers. also consider the complexity of the brain itself and compare the different lobes. They are capable of learing on the go with minor prehand observations. Also consider how much higher level math they have to do subconciously and/or conciously (i.e. being able to use sonar to dectect a difference in size of an object by the width of your fingernail). Remember don’t consider what they can’t do based off of physiology but consider what they can do and actually do.

Does that mean that I will someday it will be legal to marry my dolphin?
Honey now we don’t have to feel ostracized for Zoophilia! At last a light of hope for our misunderstood relationships!
Lets add the Z to LGBT: LGBTZ!

I wonder if in the future they will add a N for Necrophilia, R for Sex-Bots.

tsk, tsk… humans… are we the only race this fucked up?

No that isn’t what i am exactly saying but what i am saying is to look at what they have accomplished on their own, then look at what we’ve accomplished; compare the timeline and the learing curve. We see technology increases exponentially as well as population. If you consider how long it took us to learn skills and compare it to what they know how to do you will find their learning curve to be a lot better than our own. They use tools (without hands), they are far more cooperative, et cetera. But i have written an essay on them to show the difference between beng human and being a person with information on how we are very similar to each other and how dolphins deserve our respect as a fellow persons. If you with to have a copy of it attach your email and i will send it. Also i am not saying i want to be able to marry dolphins but rather merely trying to prove they are more than what we see them as because we, as humans, are inherently arrogant. (yes i am ridiculing our natural behaviors)

I leave you with a personal quote of mine: Do not judge what you know nothing about for it may judge you more.

It seems that dolphins do have an ability to observe their surroundings and communicate what they have observed to the others. Its impossible that not one of them has seen and/or survived all of the atrocious things we have done to them and most likely have told other dolphins. With that it’s amazing that they have not attacked every single human they see. I see this behavior as being a result of two possible things. One is that their language if they even have one isn’t enough to communicate what they saw to other dolphins. Second, and more profound reason for this behavior is that their social maturity is above and beyond that of ours. As a species they are able to understand that a war against humans is not in their better interest in the long run. Perhaps this comes from a lack of illusion of control which is the driving force of human kind. Perhaps if humans did not have a burning need to control everything thing around us we would not be very different from the dolphins.
But i’m no biologist, dolphin expert or have any expertise in what I just said.

Recent studies have found that dolphins actually communicate the same way us humans do. The article can be found here:    So it isn’t a matter on whether or not the can communicate, because they can, and they do so effectively. The challenge is distribution of dolphin populations, where resources are located, and things of that nature. Dolphins have been known to kill humans consciously, do to certain circumstances. One such anecdote is that a man was drunk in a hotel and decided to dump beer into the dolphin enclosure. The dolphin wasn’t happy, obviously, so the dolphin proceeded to jump out of the water and hit man with his flukes. The force of the hit killed the man and i do not know the outcome of the dolphin. So i prefer to think that the latter statement is more correct than the former, but dolphins are naturally curious, just as curious as we are about them. They also seem to enjoy having friendships with humans as well. So overall they are far more intelligent than many are willing to allow themselves to believe

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