Volume 14, Issue 2, Fall 2000
Thomas I. White
Doing Business in Morally Troubled Waters
Dolphins, the Entertainment Industry, and the Ethics of Captivity
This essay argues that humans have not fully understood the cognitive and affective capacities of dolphins, and that we have mistakenly defended as morally acceptable practices that actually harm dolphins. In particular, this essay argues that the current use of hundreds of captive dolphins by Sea World and similar facilities in the entertainment industry is ethically indefensible. Focusing primarily on critical differences between humans and dolphins, this essay argues that central concepts like “intelligence” and “language” (which have played a critical role in discussions about whether dolphins have moral standing) should be seen as species-specific, not universal notions. As a result, there are insufficient grounds to make the traditional claim that dolphins’ cognitive capacities place them on a significantly lower spot in the moral hierarchy than humans. This paper also claims that the full development of dolphin personalities may depend on the richness of social interaction that is common in the life of a dolphin in the wild. Consequently, dolphins can probably experience a greater degree of emotional pain or deprivation in captivity than has traditionally been thought.