- Is a dolphin a person?
- This question came up during the trial of the two people who, in May 1977, set free two bottle-nosed dolphins used for experimental purposes by the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology'. It is an interesting question for a number of reasons, and I want to devote most of this chapter to interpreting it and tracing its connection with several others which may already be of concern to us. …
- … a ‘choice of evils’ defence. In principle the law allows this in cases where an act, otherwise objectionable, is necessary to avoid a greater evil. For this defence to succeed, the act has to be (as far as the defendant knows) the only way of avoiding an imminent, and more serious, harm or evil to himself or to ‘another’.
- But was a dolphin ‘another’? The judge thought not. He said that ‘another' would have to be another person, and he defined dolphins as property, not as persons, as a matter of law. ‘… We get to dolphins, we get to orang-utans, chimpanzees. dogs, cats. I don’t know at what level you say intelligence1 is insufficient to have that animal or thing, or whatever you want to call it, a human being under the penal code.
- At this point - which determined the whole outcome of the trial - something seemed perfectly obvious to the judge about the meaning of the words ‘other’ and ’person’. What was it? And how obvious is it to everybody else? In the answer just given, he raises the possibility that it might be a matter of intelligence2, but he rejects it. That consideration, he says, is not needed. The question is quite a simple one; no tests are called for. The word ‘person' means a human being.
- I think that this is a very natural view but not actually a true one. and the complications which we find when we look into the use of this very interesting word are instructive. In the first place, there are several well-established and venerable precedents for calling non-human beings ‘persons’. One concerns the persons of the Trinity and, indeed, the personhood of God. Another is the case of ‘legal persons’ - corporate bodies such as cities or colleges, which count as persons for various purposes, such as suing and being sued. …
- … Thirdly, an instance that seems closer to the case of the dolphins, the word is used3 by zoologists to describe the individual members of a compound or colonial organism, such as a jellyfish or coral, each having (as the dictionary reasonably puts it) a ‘more or less independent life'. (It is also interesting that ‘personal identity' is commonly held to belong to continuity of consciousness rather than of bodily form in stories where the two diverge. Science fiction strongly supports this view, which was first mooted by John Locke …
- There is nothing stretched or paradoxical about these uses, for the word does not in origin mean ‘human being’ or anything like it at all. It means 'a mask’, and its basic general sense comes from the drama. The ‘masks’ in a play are the characters who appear in it. Thus, to quote the Oxford Dictionary again, after ‘a mask’, it means ‘a character or personage acted, one who plays or performs any part, a character, relation or capacity in which one acts, a being having legal rights, a juridical person’. The last two meanings throw a clear light on the difference between this notion and that of being human. Not all human beings need be persons. The word persona in Latin does not apply to slaves, though it does apply to the state as a corporate person. Slaves have, so to speak, no speaking part in the drama; they do not figure in it; they are extras. There are some similar, and entertaining, examples about women.
- The issue of whether women must be understood as included by the word 'persons' continued even into the twentieth century. . . .
- Legal persons are well-know; I’d not heard of ‘colonial persons’.
- But I think these examples – while showing that ‘person’ is not semantically equivalent to ‘human being’ – can be unhelpful as such examples of personhood are not even sentient (or even individuals). It widens the usage so that it’s no longer so important forensically or as laudatory as an honorific.
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