Both from a strategic and moral standpoint, it is no surprise that when military action is contemplated, governments tend to favor effective tactics involving the least risk to human lives. Even better are effective tactics involving low risk to all human lives. If the goal of the military action is justified, what could be morally problematic with using such means? These widely held notions likely motivated the U.S. Navy’s recent contemplated use of military dolphins in the ongoing conflict between Iran and United States.
As reported in the New York Times, Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a crucially strategic waterway where 16 million barrels of oil flow through every day, and it can do so in relatively short time by deploying mines. U.S. governmental officials warned that Iran’s threat, if carried out, would cross a “red line” provoking a military response. Should the situation escalate to that point, the U.S. military would need to deal with the problem of how to detect (and then destroy) the mines, for which there is a time tested solution: mine-detecting dolphins. Once detected, the job of destroying the mines falls to human divers. Nonetheless, even though military dolphins operate only in a secondary role, the risk of harm to them is very real; they could accidentally set off live mines and, more seriously, prompt the Iranians to intentionally target them and other dolphins in the area. Still, is there a moral problem here? In addition to the strategic merits of the tactic, wouldn’t the very low risk to humans fully justify using dolphins in this way?
Underlying the idea in favor of such use is the notion that humans possess greater moral standing than dolphins—that is, in comparison to dolphins, the welfare and interests of humans count more when making moral decisions. On one version of this view, humans possess greater moral standing in virtue of belonging to a certain species, and thus are free to use non-humans as tools because their interests can be ignored. This is speciesism at its most blatant, which, as philosopher Peter Singer explains, is “a form of prejudice against beings who are not ‘us’ that is akin to racism and sexism.” Similar interests in different entities ought to matter equally, regardless of differences in intelligence, abilities, race, or gender. Extending this principle of equal consideration to animals, conscripting dolphins into military service, Singer argues, fails to take their interests seriously. In particular, it fails to take seriously the notion that getting blown to bits is just as bad for them as it would be for us.
However, a sophisticated defender of military dolphins is unlikely to think that humans are free to use them in whatever way we like, or that dolphins possess no moral standing at all. Speciesism, like racism, can have subtle forms. Perhaps a sophisticated defender would maintain that while dolphins have less moral standing than humans, they are still creatures worthy of moral consideration, not merely tools for human use. Such a defender may point out that animals in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program are provided with the “highest quality of humane care and treatment” in state-of-the-art facilities, “mixed with genuine compassion” (although this claim has been disputed here). Nevertheless, human interests and goals can justify using military dolphins in some circumstances where they would face a significant risk of harm. On this view, humans presumably possess greater moral standing in virtue of being persons—something dolphins are not.
Unlike the notion of “human,” “person” or “personhood” is a philosophical concept, referring to a being with certain traits entitling her to special treatment. What traits exactly? If personhood traits are such that only Homo sapiens could, in principle, qualify for the status, then the concept is speciesist and thus indefensible. The rough consensus among philosophers is that a person is a being with a particular kind of inner world or sophisticated consciousness. According to the traditional conception of personhood, persons are beings who:
1) are alive and aware of their environment;
2) have the capacity for pleasure and pain;
3) have emotions and a sense of self;
4) control their actions;
5) recognize other persons and treat them appropriately; and
6) have a variety of higher order intellectual skills (including abilities to learn, to communicate, to solve complex problems, and to engage in abstract thought).
Philosopher Thomas I. White, in his book “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier and elsewhere,” convincingly demonstrates that even against this traditional (flawed) criteria, dolphins measure up well, and thus the case for recognizing them as non-human persons is particularly strong. The scientific evidence offers powerful support for this conclusion. So, if dolphins are persons, then we ought to accord them with the basic respect of persons – such as freedom from enslavement. No matter how well treated they are, conscripting dolphins for military use in our wars chillingly resembles forcing enslaved humans to fight for their oppressors. Singer makes the point well: “Dolphins have nothing to do with the dispute over Iran’s nuclear plans. Whatever the rights and wrongs of taking military action against Iran, let’s leave the dolphins out of it.”