Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Subjectifying the Marine Object

Continuing with a theme from my previous posting, Legal Subjectivity and Artificial Intelligence, I want to touch upon other areas where living objects are given standing or have been increasingly deemed worthy of being treated as subjects under the law. In a recent Times Newspaper article, it is reported that scientists suggest that dolphins should be considered "non-human" persons given their high capacity for intelligence, second only to humans. In so doing, the argument follows that a host of rights would or ought to be conferred upon them. This includes the right not to be used as entertainment which the scientists argue entails a form of imprisonment.

The transition from living object to living subject is far from unique. It is perhaps often related to cultural shifts within a given society that increasingly views certain objects as having some heightened intelligence akin to humans that may warrant an altered (and in some cases - legal) status.

Films have been one source that reflects some of these changed perceptions - if not a source for encouraging a change in perceptions. For instance, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, an alien probe is sent to Earth to communicate with humpback whales, an extinct species within the fictional world of Star Trek that transpires in the 23rd century. Given their extinction, the probe is unable to communicate with any humpback whales and results in the probe potentially destroying the planet (by evaporating the oceans and destroying Earth's atmosphere) - unless it is able to communicate with this specific species. The crew of the former USS Enterprise have to travel back in time to a period in Earth's history (the late 20th century) to acquire two humpback whales and return them back to the future in order to communicate with the probe.

During the course of the film, humpback whales are treated as sympathetic beings, intelligent life forms whose eventual and systematic extinction would lead to humans' own near destruction in the science fictional future. They are shown to have a complex but fascinating form of communication through whale songs. Probably most striking in the film's efforts to demonstrate their sentience and value, Spock is able to communicate with one of the two whales that eventually get transported back to the future. Spock conveys the crew's intentions to the whales and the whales inform him of their willingness to help. Yet Spock find himself circumspect about the morality of treating the whales as objects to be used to save human society, even if in self-defense. He articulates to Jim Kirk: "Admiral, if we were to assume that these whales are ours to do with as we please, we would be as guilty as those who caused their extinction." Furthermore the whales communicate to Spock their unhappiness with how their species has been treated by man and for that matter their specific dissatisfaction with being kept in confinement. All this to suggest a mature consciousness and awareness about their mistreatment as a species entailing both mass slaughter and confinement.

In addition to the demonstration of heightened consciousness and intelligence, what is probably significant in the calls for the elevated status for certain types of non-human life such as whales and dolphins is their perceived docility. Unlike sharks which are viewed as largely a danger to human beings - assisted in no small measure by the Jaws films, and others like Deep Blue Sea - in the modern era at least - whales and dolphins are not represented as posing a potential danger to human society (although see the film Orca).

Lastly, and this is similarly of no little importance, whales and dolphins in probably most contemporary societies are not deemed to be a source of food for human consumption. Given their perceived intelligence, dolphins can be trained for use in military exercises. Furthermore, from a commercial perspective, dolphins and killer whales are used for entertainment purposes. Were such intelligent sea life to occupy the same role as cows, chickens and pigs in the human food chain, we would unlikely see such impassioned and positive representations in popular culture about the necessity to alter the legal status of these non-human species.

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