Dolphins and Intersubjectivity

The documentary film The Cove attempts to demonstrate that eating dolphin meat is unethical by showing that dolphins are intelligent animals that experience pain as humans do. Recognizing intelligence in other animals allows humans to relate to the animal and feel empathy towards them. Intersubjectivity; the idea that the ability to experience another being as a subject, as opposed to an object, allows one to experience empathy; plays a critical role on determining the ethics of killing/eating animals because it allows the range humans can feel empathy towards. By showing footage of psychological experiments which demonstrates the intelligence of dolphins, the film attempts to broaden the range of the audience’s intersubjectivity and appeals to them that killing/eating dolphin is unethical.

Why is dolphin killing/eating unethical? Although The Cove touches upon the risk of mercury poisoning for prohibition, the major claim the film makes is that killing/eating intelligent animals is a matter of ethics rather than food safety. How does intelligence, then, determine the ethics of animal killing/eating? The assumption that intelligence correlates to the capacity of feeling pain is used to argue killing/eating intelligent animals is unethical. However, it may be quite difficult to determine whether other animals including dolphins experience pain the same way humans do.

Then what determines the ethics of making an animal experience pain? Why is it acceptable to kill an unintelligent chicken, but unethical to kill a dolphin? Intersubjectivity allows humans to feel empathy towards other beings, and intelligence determines the range of creatures that allows intersubjectivity to occur. Intersubjectivity can be expanded to the realm of dolphins, allowing humans to assume they experience pain the same way we do. The film argues that projecting our empathy into the mind of a dolphin is not difficult because of the results of several psychological experiments that apparently demonstrate high levels of intelligence in dolphins. If dolphins think like we do, the film argues, they can feel pain as we do, and making them feel pain would be unethical.

The film shows three psychological experiments performed on dolphins.

Reactiontime measurement

Reactiontime measurement

 

Reaction time measurement shows evidence that dolphins have advanced ability to respond to a stimulus.

Working memory test

Working memory test

Working memory test demonstrates the existence of short term memory in dolphins which hints the capacity of meta-cognition.

The mirror stage

The mirror stage

The mirror stage shows the ability to recognize oneself objectively, hinting that dolphins go through the process of self-identification

Although the first two experiments recognize advanced intelligence in dolphins, the third experiment is yet again a matter of intersubjectivity. Dolphins and other animals such as the great apes may recognize oneself in the mirror; however whether these animals go through the same self-identification process which Lacan theorized as the mirror-stage is highly questionable. It is more likely that humans are projecting themselves into the reflection of dolphins and making a leap of logic.

By showing footage of psychological experiments performed on dolphins, The Cove attempts to demonstrate dolphins as intelligence animals that have the ability to experience human-like pain. Whether dolphins can experience pain like humans do is indeterminable, for evidence of pain experience in dolphins may merely be humans trying to intersubjectively project their own experience into dolphins. Claiming dolphin killing/eating unethical from the perspective of dolphins experiencing pain is questionable.

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2 responses to “Dolphins and Intersubjectivity

  1. Katrina Heywood

    Why wouldn’t dolphin’s experience pain?! It’s a basic survival mechanism. Anyone who assumes that dolphins or indeed other animals don’t experience pain is missing a basic level of intuition. Humans are not as different to animals as we would like to think – we are in fact merely a very intelligent animal who has come to have high thoughts about it’s own species! Dolphins may not experience pain EXACTLY as we do (perhaps it’s worse for them we don’t know they can’t tell us) but they are sentient intelligent animals who experience stress, pain, emotion and strong social bonds. I applaud documentary makers like those who made The Cove for highlighting this. Just a shame others are too blind to see it.

  2. Hiroki,

    You state: “Whether dolphins can experience pain like humans do is indeterminable, for evidence of pain experience in dolphins may merely be humans trying to intersubjectively project their own experience into dolphins.”

    The same can be said about you – whether you can experience pain like I do is indeterminable (unless I AM you, I cannot know what you are experiencing). So, if I see you grimace as though you are in pain and think that you are suffering, I must simply be projecting my own experience on you, when you might not be experiencing any pain at all.

    Your beliefs and mindset justify the killing of these highly social and intelligent, self-aware animals.

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