Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dolphin rights, beyond glibness

In my last post I made a cynical comment about the idea of rights for dolphins. Since I have read about, and more importantly, thought a lot about exactly what sort of rights animals deserve generally, it probably deserves something more earnest.

So, of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is Lou Reed: “There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets”. I said earnest, not idealistic. To me every being has the moral right to try to survive, but can never be guaranteed success, let alone any higher sort of dignity.

But just recognizing a dolphin's right to try is more powerful than we might think. A dolphin is not like a cat or dog, seeking a partnership with people. Surely our ability to understand animals is limited, but it speaks volumes that if you feed cats and dogs and let them generally run free (common enough in rural areas) they'll hang around for more than just the food. They'll enter something like a social contract with you pretty willingly. Dolphins won't, and it takes force and trickery to keep them in captivity. It takes constant frustration of their instincts and desires. That's true of almost every animal you see at a zoo, not just dolphins.

The question of zoos becomes more complicated in the context of widespread habitat destruction. Is zookeeping OK when it saves species from extinction? This speaks to an even bigger question. I don't want to go on endlessly about vegetarianism or something, 'cause that's not what this is about, but it's a necessary setup... it's really pretty easy to be a healthy vegetarian, as there have been a number of vegetarian food cultures in history and modern medicine believes you don't even really have to pay attention to protein mixing, just don't eat the same thing every damn day. But veganism is tougher — the current understanding is that the human body needs nutrients that can only be obtained through animal flesh, animal products, or industrial production. That is to say: we all have a need, as much a part of us as our right hands, or our abilities to reason, to either kill, exploit, or dominate. Choose wisely.

This need, which has developed with us (and our increasing ability to kill, exploit, and dominate) over many generations, is like our situation where many species are endangered by our hands. To someone that idealizes a peaceful and balanced world it's a moral burden we necessarily inherit. Satisfy our desires and frustrate those of another. Few take seriously the alternative: death.

Maybe at some point we had a choice but now we're kinda stuck with domination. I think it's true what Tolstoy said: that in his wars, Napoleon had the least free will of anyone.

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