Make Way for “Non-Human Persons”?

Personhood and personality are not the same thing. When scientists and animal rights activists call for an animal to be considered a person, they imply a status that invokes rights.
President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Updated Jan 19, 2012
Make Way for “Non-Human Persons”?

Having just observed the magnificent sight of humpback whales cavorting off the coast of Hawaii, I am all the more aware of just how incredible these mammals really are. While there may be any number of reasons why they act as they do, I find it very hard to believe that they are not having a bit of fun. Beyond this, the more we learn about the whales the more we understand their complex brains and social behaviors. They are highly intelligent animals with a grandeur all their own. I admire them greatly. I thank God for creating them. I want them to thrive and survive and show the glory of God in every sea and ocean.

But, if my children were hungry and no other food could be obtained, I would feed them whale meat and keep them warm by burning whale oil.

Thankfully, it has never come to that, and I hope it never will. I support an end to all commercial whale fishing because it is no longer necessary and because these animals are or at some point have been threatened with extinction. My point is this -- whales are magnificent creatures that I desire to protect and admire, but they are not human beings. Any confusion about this does not raise whales to a new status. Instead, confusion about the distinction between humans and animals serves to threaten human dignity.

This must be kept in mind in light of news that some scientists want to declare dolphins (porpoises) to be "non-human persons."

According to The Times (London), researchers now claim that dolphins rank second to human beings in terms of intelligence, displacing chimps and apes from that ranking. Furthermore, some of these scientists want to declare dolphins to be "non-human persons" with specific rights.

As the paper reports, "The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing."


Dolphins have long been recognized as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioral studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.

These claims of distinct personalities, "a strong sense of self," and the ability to contemplate the future may well be valid. Measuring relative intelligence is hard enough among human beings, however, much less among various species. Nevertheless, no one should doubt the fact that dolphins and whales seem far more intelligent than dairy cattle. But is it reasonable to define them as persons?

Personhood and personality are not the same thing. Even house pets and farm animals have personality. This is part of their charm, after all. But much of what we consider personality is fueled by our own reflex to anthropomorphize -- to read human states of mind and intelligence back onto our animals.

When scientists and animal rights activists call for an animal to be considered a person, they imply a status that invokes rights. It is highly problematic to suggest that any non-human species possesses rights in any sense analogous to those rightly claimed by human beings.

We are witnessing a massive shift in human consciousness at this point, with activists calling for non-human species to be classified as non-human persons. Legal activists are ready to argue that at least some animals deserve legal representation. There is no end to the confusion such moves would inevitable create.

A key moral principle comes down to this: We do not eat persons. While eating whales and dolphins is, at least for most of us, neither necessary or desirable, we must recognize that whales and dolphins -- intelligent as they are -- are still non-human animals, not non-human persons.

I fervently hope that I never have to eat a whale or a dolphin. But this is a matter of preference and need rather than immutable principle. The experience of watching those magnificent creatures off the coasts of Maui and Oahu was unforgettable. I support the maximum stewardship of sea life and the legal protection of whales from commercial fishing. But I do so because they are magnificent animals and part of the glory of God's creation, not because they are persons.

The Christian worldview requires the careful making of the right distinctions, and one of the most important of these distinctions comes down to the crucial and categorical distinction between human beings -- created in God's own image -- and the rest of the created order. We must reject the very notion of "non-human persons."

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