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The Contender
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7 Points

Dolphins should be legally defined as non-human persons.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 10/4/2011 Category: Science
Updated: 6 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,234 times Debate No: 18549
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (5)
Votes (1)




I'm not interested in employing any kind of formal debating format here. I would simply like an interesting and fruitful debate. I would prefer to address my opponent directly, and invite him or her to do the same. This post will be my introductory argument.

I would argue that the main value of human life is derived from the human mind, or the human intelligence. The chief reason why we consider the killing of a human being a punishable offence, while the mass extermination of bacteria is something people are content to do while cleaning their bathroom, is that humans are considered to be 'sentient'.

Humans think creatively, feel deep emotion, and experience happiness and misery on complex levels. Hence a human life is precious.

Estimating the intelligence of different animal species is notoriously difficult. Indeed, estimating the relative intelligence of human beings raised in different cultures is difficult in itself. However science, though imperfect, is the best tool we have. Current scientific thinking attributes an EQ rating when comparing the intelligence of different species:

The totality of research on dolphin behaviour to date has lead researchers to place the EQ of the Bottlenose Dolphin at 5.3, compared to the human being's EQ rating of 7.6. This means we can say that a dolphin is at least 70% as intelligent as a human. Perhaps this is a simplistic way of looking at things, but I would argue thusly: if, for example, a human being receives a 20 year prison sentence for deliberately murdering another human being, then would it not be reasonable to give somebody a penalty 70% as great for the killing of a dolphin, i.e. 14 years in prison.

This to me seems logically and ethically sound. There is no absolute difference between the intelligence of a human and the intelligence of a dolphin. Both animals merely reside at different positions on a spectrum of intelligence.

Were I in charge of things I would probably also factor the level at which a species was endangered into the penalty I would give a human for the wilful slaughter of a dolphin, but this is to some extent beside the point. What to me seems most crucial is that over time better understanding of dolphin behaviour and culture has seen a clear trend on our estimates of dolphin intelligence being revised upwards as we learn more about them.

So, if mind is the primary element of the value of a human life, then surely dolphin intelligence should guide us in apportioning the legal status of a dolphin life.


My apologies for the late reply, rl and what not
Alright, well, I'll go ahead and start poking holes, yes?
(I formatted my response to make it easier to follow. If I'm being too formal give a shout.)

I don't know how to format it otherwise.

Firstly, I'm afraid your value of a human life, and by extension life, isn't quite bullet-proof--

If psychological ability is the prime factor in the value of a human life, then one can say that those with mental handicaps are less human, or less valuable as humans.

Also, assuming that we would draw a line in the sentience scale between what is and is not permissable to kill:

A. Because of the difficuty in estimating life and intelligence, this line would be arbitrary- whether it's set at a mouse, a dolphin, or a bacterium.
B. Depending on the structure of the line(s), other moral issues would present themselves, e.g. it's perfectly legal to skin a mouse alive

Thank you for the links, they were interesting, but you used EQ to establish a basis for punishments.

I'd have to say that the EQ scale is by no means a practical measurement of intelligence, as your links agree.
Killing a shrew under this system would warrant a more severe punishmant than that of a human.

I've also got to take issue with assuming a linear model of intelligence--
Statistics from your 2nd link:

Brain weight:
Human 1350
Dolphin 1350

Cortical neurons:
Human 11500
Dolphin 5800

Human 7.6
Dolphin 5.3

Calculated complexity:
Human 70
Dolphin 67

Now, we know that dolphins are no more intelligent than children.
Even though their 'calculated complexity' is 95% that of humans, or their EQ is ~70% that of humans, or their cortical neurons are HALF that of a humans, would you argue that a young child's intelligence is any of those percentages of an adult's? How would you measure actual cognitive ability? ie what actual attributes & facets of the mind are measured, and what measuremnt system would you use for an analysis of more abstract abilities? How much more difficult is it to embark on epistemological thinking than to recognize yourself in the mirror?

Furthermore, how does a child's numbers, respective to those I just listed, compare to those of a dolphins?

Discrepencies everywhere sir.

Intelligence trend
If you take a look at the following site:
This was published in 2010

Points in this Article:
"The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future."
"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."
"It has also become clear that they are “cultural” animals"
"showed that bottlenose dolphins could recognise themselves in a mirror and use it to inspect various parts of their bodies"
"found that the brain cortex of dolphins such as the bottlenose had the same convoluted folds that are strongly linked with human intelligence."
"dolphins living off Western Australia learnt to hold sponges over their snouts to protect themselves when searching for spiny fish"

Compare this to the following link:
This was published in 1999
Here are a few points from it:
" Researchers have also pointed to the parallels in the organization of dolphin and primate brains as more evidence of high intelligence in dolphins"
"This behavior is particularly interesting because it shows that the dolphin had a sense of the future and delayed gratification."
"conclude that dolphins can communicate abstract ideas, such as left and right. "

We have known these kinds of things about dolphins for a long time. The self-recognition has been around since 1970, and was still cited in the 2010 article proposing to recognize them as persons.
We may be observing new behaviors, but it isn't proving them significantly more intelligent than we already thought.

I have to say, none of these stand out to me as any more complex than chimpanzees, which demonstrate:
Personality, sense of self, forethought (gathering nuts for cracking elsewhere), ability to learn symbol-based languages, solve difficult problems, (limited) cooperation, social structures, empathy, tool usage, and even a sense of justice
Here are a few links:
**(learned) cooperation:**

***empathy & justice***

If your position is that only dolphins are subject to this classification, why not chimpanzees or other sentients?

One more thing, your "culture" as used with dolphin pods, refers to behaviors pods learn that seperate them from others. Thus a pod of dolphins that has learned a new trick to find clams, or a new strategy for herding fish, qualifies as a culture.
This seems to me a superficial ploy to infer a higher degree of intelligence on their part.


This is a very large wrench in your gears I'm afraid.
A few issues off the top of my head:

Who would enforce these laws?
------Oceans are international, no one has jurisdiction over it.

What happens when not everyone has such laws?
------Socio-political-economics oh my
-Who would be required to house these prisoners?
------If this is in international waters, is it the responsibility of the country with dolphin laws, the responsibility of the dolphin's home country, or the responsibility of the offender's country?
-Who would pay for said prisoners?
------Prison is costly.

What else is now illegal due to the prohibition on killing 'sentient' life?
------New bootstrap industry in black-market cow-parts

Dolphins are now persons, are they subjects of our penal code?
------If dolphins are immune to commiting crimes against other sentients, wouldn't that place humans as a new second-class species? Inequality is now an issue.

So yeah, basically the value system you presented is flawed as is the measurement system that supports it, the intelligence of dolphins isn't outstanding enough to warrant laws protecting them specifically, the scope of possible laws to do so would be insane, & said laws/restrictions would be untenable due to logistics, international cooperation, public opinion etc. Of course all of this depends on the definition of 'person' and it's standing in the law.

My apologies for the wall of text,

Back to you good sir.
Debate Round No. 1


Helium-Flash forfeited this round.


:/ extension
Debate Round No. 2


Helium-Flash forfeited this round.


Debate Round No. 3


Helium-Flash forfeited this round.


My thanks for creating the argument, good luck.
Debate Round No. 4
5 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 5 records.
Posted by Helium-Flash 6 years ago
No, didn't intrude on anything. I shall be responding after work tomozzo...challenging first post by the Grizzly-meister means I'll need to take my sweet time over my resonse. :-)
Posted by GrizzlyAdamz 6 years ago
Also, bootleg*
Posted by GrizzlyAdamz 6 years ago
Hmm, did I intrude on something by accepting?

Came by to lol at the construction of the top of my response, clusterfuck yes?
Posted by Helium-Flash 6 years ago
How do I cancel the debate?
Posted by Ore_Ele 6 years ago
I'm actually not going to be able to get to this before it expires.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by RougeFox 6 years ago
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Total points awarded:07 
Reasons for voting decision: Should be obvious.