Since the dawn of Western civilization, anthropocentrism – the notion that the world and its inhabitants exist exclusively for human beings – has infiltrated nearly every corner of the globe. The conceptual separation of humans from “nature” is at the core of this belief system, as is the notion that other-than-human animals are unthinking, unfeeling automatons. The colonial legacies that imposed these beliefs upon the world’s many cultures continue to cause great suffering for humans and other-than-human animals alike and give rise to things like factory farms, cruel experiments, and entertainment facilities like SeaWorld.
Western legal systems and moral codes have evolved to reflect this anthropocentrism. This is why today, in many countries, other-than-human animals are considered property – as lowly physical objects designed for human manipulation, exploitation and consumption. At this moment, and as hard as it may be to believe, no other animal has the legal right to their own lives. This is what makes it legal for SeaWorld to “own” whales and force them to perform until the day they die.
Fortunately, we are beginning to see the error of these ways. Sonar, a new organization, works to gain widespread recognition of dolphin and whale (known as cetaceans) rights. Sonar’s approach recognizes that cetaceans already have the right to be alive, the right to freedom, and the right to access the resources they need to survive (like clean water and abundant fish), and so on. These so-called entitlement rights emanate from the whales themselves, just as our human rights emanate from each of us, by virtue of our being alive. So it is a matter of our recognizing and respecting these existing rights, rather than deciding to give rights to certain species.
Why Cetaceans Deserved to be Treated as a “Who” and not a “What”
Sonar also advocates for cetacean nonhuman personhood, which is touted as being an important step that western legal systems should take. The concept of legal and moral personhood can be summed up as the difference between a who or a what, a someone or a something. Because the U.S. laws consider cetaceans to be property, it allocates them the same legal rights as property, such as a coffee table or a house – which is to say, zero rights. Steven Wise, director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, grounds his advocacy in the notion that a being must first be considered a legal person before their rights can be formally recognized.
While there is no solid definition of personhood, some of the characteristics a being must have to be considered a person include emotions, self-awareness, the ability to solve complex problems and to recognize other persons – abilities that were once considered the exclusive domain of the homo sapien. However, as we learn more about who other animals are, we come to realize that they too easily fulfill these criteria.
It’s important to realize that, despite what some people may believe, dolphins and whales are not special, mystical beings who are more deserving of rights than other species. Sonar recognizes that cetaceans can act as catalysts in the evolution of how we understand all other-than-human life because cetaceans are already widely understood as being among the “smartest” animals. This makes it easier for people to agree with and support the notion that they are entitled to the rights to their own lives. Cetaceans also benefit from a large body of established western scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates that they meet and even exceed the definitions of personhood. Such evidence is, albeit, unfortunately, a staunch requirement of legal advocacy.
Progress is Being Made
The movement to rethink our legal and moral consideration of cetaceans and other animals has been gaining momentum lately. In 2013, the government of India banned cetacean captivity and issued a statement saying that cetaceans should be considered nonhuman persons. Last year San Francisco passed a resolution that recognizes cetacean’s rights to be free. The Canadian Senate is currently considering banning cetacean captivity, and SeaWorld has been under enormous legislative pressure to end their orca shows since the release of Blackfish. New Zealand has legally recognized that animals are sentient beings, while Montreal is in the process of doing so.
While entitlement rights and personhood are worthwhile goals to work toward, they are far from being the only goals, or the most important. One of the problems with these concepts is that they are embedded within the western colonial system – the same system that has, and continues to, trample upon the rights of certain human cultures, as well as all other species. In his paper Animal Bodies, Colonial Subjects: (Re)Locating Animality in Decolonial Thought, Billy Ray Belcourt argues that these tactics actually uphold and strengthen these systems, and consequently perpetuate the oppressions they seek to relieve.
Truly disrupting the anthropocentrism that lies at the root of these issues will likely be one of the enduring challenges and defining struggles of our time. Rights advocacy, for all of its problems, does help in changing people’s understanding and attitudes. But it will ultimately require those of us who are embedded within the confines of western culture to question and challenge our conditioning so that we can dismantle the illusions and dissolve the differences that western imperialism creates in order to justify untold cruelty. Our goal is to envision whole new ways of thinking about and living with one another. This goal is within our reach.
If you believe that we cetaceans have the rights to their own lives, please sign and share this petition. You can stay up to date with Sonar on Twitter and if you would like to contribute to the cause, click here.
Lead image source: Alessandro Caproni/Flickr