Deeply Ambivalent

Sunday, December 6, 2009
This particular Navy practice makes me deeply ambivalent.

While I understand the role other species have played in human warfare and property protection over the centuries, I wonder about the moral and ethical ramifications of using dolphins and seals in this capacity. I think a reasonable case can be made that dolphins and seals are sentient. They're also wild animals - not a domesticated species who have co-evolved with us to the point where they cannot survive outside our relationship with them.

Do we have the right to capture wild animals and force them to serve us in this capacity? My gut response is "no." I also tend to believe my gut response can be defended intellectually and ethically, but I need to think about it some more. Since I eat meat and use animal products like leather, it really is a question where I choose to draw my own ethical line. It's okay to exploit animals in this way, but not in that. Perhaps I find the use of marine mammals in these endeavors so disturbing because they're so smart, and it seems so much more exploitative than eating a fish, for example.

This whole "being thoughtful" and "leading an examined life" thing is really quite a lot of work. Life would be so much less stressful if I could just stop.

27 comments:

Eric said...

As I've said elsewhere, I can offer you a guidebook on the thoughtless and unexamined life, if you don't mind that the pages are a bit marked up....

Seriously, though, I don't have a good answer. The idea of enslaving sentient creatures makes me squeamish--and if dolphins are sentient, than "slavery" is the proper word for what we're talking about and the identifier or locus for your moral concerns. On the other hand, I don't intend to give up being a carnivore or user of animal products, myself, and I have to wonder if my own lines in the sand are a bit arbitrary. Perhaps if I lived in a culture that considered dolphin a delicacy, I really wouldn't care all that much if they were sentient--would that be a morally dubious position or simply an arbitrary cultural line?

(Or to put it this way: is cannibalism one of those absolute moral wrongs that should not be tolerated anywhere, like I feel wife-burning to be, or is it something that is a matter of perspective? It's not quite tangential--moral (as opposed to health) scruples about cannibalism are similar to moral scruples about eating dolphins, just as moral scruples about human slavery are similar to moral scruples about cetacean slavery--they touch similar concerns about dignity, self-determination, etc.)

I have no real answer.

neurondoc said...

You have made think. That is a good thing.

Thinking.

Janiece said...

Eric, I was thinking about your Reading Rogue analysis when I wrote the comment about leading an examined life. Hehe.

And you are, of course, exactly correct in your use of the word "slavery." If cetaceans are sentient, then these activities are a form of slavery, and that is the moral locus in this case. Since self-determination is the aspect of humanity on which I place the highest value, it follows that my issues with using a potentially sentient species in this manner would strike me, viscerally, as morally reprehensible.

Natalie, thinking is a good thing, although sometimes painful. At least for me...

Anne C. said...

I think Eric's question about cannibalism as an absolute vs. relative wrong can also be examined by looking at the practice of eating horse or dog meat. It's acceptable some places, but it's in places where dogs and horses are seen as inferior creatures.

It's this sense of superiority (and manifest destiny) that allowed those in power to subjugate women (whose intellect was rendered inferior by their overtly emotional nature) and Africans (considered only slightly more sophisticated than animals). When I see a similar sense of superiority in myself, it sets off warning bells in my head.

I could go into a long rationalization of why it's OK for me to eat cows and chickens (it's actually something I think about often) but in the end, it's a rationalization. I know it is. Fortunately, it seems to me that it's a minor infraction in comparison to all the moral rationalizations humans go through. ("Thou shalt not kill" = Abortion is murder, but the death penalty and war is not?) It's a rationalization I'm working on. Maybe I'll resolve it before I die of old age, maybe I won't. At this point, however, I'll take comfort in the fact that I'm aware of it.

And to get back on topic, I do think that taking wild animals out of the wild and training them for... I was going to say "lethal purposes" but it's really any purpose... is wrong. For me, part of it is anthropomorphizing (dolphins are playful creatures!) and part of it, as you point out, is the sanctity of self-determination.

Fathergoose said...

How you seen the film "The Cove". I believe it comes out on DVD this week.

Janiece said...

I love that I have such thoughtful, thought provoking friends.

Anne, I, too, sit on the horns of a moral dilemma when it comes to eating meat. Like you, I rationalize it, knowing the whole time that what I'm doing is really nothing more than laziness in terms of my failing to resolve the issue in a satisfactory way. If I was less lazy, then I would resolve the issue and behave accordingly (either consider eating meat wrong, and stop, or consider it acceptable, and do it without guilt). Right now I sit in the uncomfortable middle, wishing I had the courage of my convictions - on either side of the argument.

I won't go to zoos or other places where wild animals are held, and the reason has everything to do with self-determination rather than anthropomorphism. Dolphins may be playful creatures, but they also engage in rape, an activity I would consider wrong. Neither opinion is germane, though - keeping them in captivity to amuse or serve us is simply wrong.

Both of those positions dovetail into an examination of my own behavior. Because I equate higher intelligence with higher sentience, the PETA wackadoos would consider me a "speciesist." My behavior does demonstrate that I place a higher value on creatures with higher intelligence than those without. I don't hesitate to eat fish or fowl, because I believe them to be dumber than a stump, but I would never consider eating a marine mammal, for example.

Such issues require me to engage in the aforementioned painful thought to come to some level of satisfactory conclusion. So far, I haven't been able to do so...

Janiece said...

Fathergoose, I haven't seen it, but when it first came out I listened to several interviews with the filmmaker on NPR. Being a product of my environment, I found the subject matter appalling.

For those of you who haven't heard of this documentary, you can find details here.

Jim Wright said...

Anne, dolphins are playful, but they can also be vicious. They kill sharks and other predators, and those teeth aren't for eating bean sprouts and seaweed.

Seals are similar, they hunt and you sure as hell don't want to wonder into a rookery by accident. I was chased by a Steller's sea lion bull nearly a hundred yards on Shemya a couple years ago.

I don't think either species is sentient, though they are most certainly at least as bright as a border collie. Both species exhibit curiosity and the ability to communicate, but then so do cats.

Should they be captured and trained this way? I don't know. I've been in the pens on Coronado Island where the Navy trains marine mammals. I can tell you that they are well treated and loved (they wouldn't do what they do without that kind of motivation). Of course, this is the same argument that a number of slave owners used to justify bringing "black africans" to the Americas and enslaving them.

I can tell you that use of these animals may have prevented a number of acts of terrorism and may have saved a number of human lives - and, of course, that doesn't track morally either. Necessity is necessity, not moral justification.

I can also point out that it's very likely that these creatures live a far better life as members of the Navy than they do in the wild, they are unlikely to be eaten by killer whales or starve or face any number of maladies their wild cousins face every day. Again, this doesn't justify anything morally.

But then you can apply the exact same argument to dogs, cats, gold fish, rabbits, and the other creatures we keep as pets, or, as you all mentioned, eat.

Nathan said...

I have no moral dilemma about eating meat. Some animals are carnivores, some are herbivores. Man is an omnivore, simple as that. (The fact that man can choose not to eat meat isn't significant to me -- If that's what you want to choose, go ahead. I'll continue to eat as I was (intelligently?) designed -- or evolved. :D)

I don't have a problem with capturing horses or oxen as beasts of burden (as man needed to do for centuries), even though I know that they've never been domesticated to the point that they can't live independent of man. (Wild horse herds are a thing to behold!)

Even cats and dogs tend to do fairly well when returned to a feral state (albeit at a fairly low level of the food chain -- they don't compete all that well).

So I guess the only moral dilemma I find here is dependent on what level of sentience one ascribes to dolphins and sea lions. If they truly are sentient, then the slavery analogy has merit and no arguments about how happy and/or well cared for they are hold water. Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure the only way to truly discover their level of sentience...is in captivity.

Whoa there!

(I'm also perfectly capable of rationalizing a lot of things if I can have an army of trained killer dolphins with strobe lights and handcuffs and shoulder-launched missiles!...and bees that shoot out of their butts.)

Fathergoose said...

Mr. Wright,
You stated "But then you can apply the exact same argument to dogs, cats, gold fish, rabbits, and the other creatures we keep as pets, or, as you all mentioned, eat."

Studies have shown the difference to be that when a Dolphin looks in a mirror they understand what they are seeing, not true with most other animals.

Anne C. said...

Jim and Janiece,

Allow me to clarify:
I used the word "anthropomorphizing" to indicate a failing on my part, not an indicator of the nature of dolphins. Wild animals behave in a way that promotes their survival in the wild. To apply any morals to their behavior is an error. I am not under the impression that all dolphins are made of rainbows and gumdrops. The same applies to elephants, apes, dogs, cats, horses, and every other animal that humans apply values to.
The ability of a single species to respond to their environment in different ways is, however, the fundamental basis for natural selection. Which brings us back around to self-determination.

I was going to say "And isn't the current behavior pattern of killing for food and self defense already established as "acceptable" behavior?" when I realized I was slipping back down into anthropomorphism. Tsk tsk.
It's a fun thing to do to apply noble attributes to big, adorable dogs and evil attributes to self-interested cats, but ultimately, they don't operate with the same set of information that humans do. How we treat them tells us more about us then it does about them.

Janiece said...

Nathan, you make a good point about animals and sentience, and how our research often takes place in a captive environment.

Frequent commenter and friend The Mechanicky Gal is a member of the San Diego Zoo, primarily because that institution and its satellite facilities have contributed an enormous amount to our knowledge and conservation of various species and the environment. You can make the same argument about the Cincinnati Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, and many other places. Does their contribution to the conservation of wildlife and the environment justify their captivity of wild animals? I can see the argument from both sides, and consider it a true moral dilemma.

Fathergoose, I understand what you're trying to say, as I tend to draw my personal line on this side of the intelligence divide myself. But it does beg the question - where is the moral place to draw the line?

Anne, I knew what you meant, and I'm not trying to imply I'm not guilty of anthropomorphizing myownself. My complete lack of objectivity when it comes to my silly dog would belie such a claim with little difficulty. So I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.

What I meant was that our tendency to anthropomorphize should have no impact on the moral argument. As Jim noted, the ways in which the Navy's mammals are "better off" where they are may be true, but they're irrelevant to the subject at hand.

Anne C. said...

Thanks Janiece. I wasn't sure what you thought, but I wanted to clarify my statement (which in retrospect seemed ambiguous). If it helps any, I see anthropomorphizing as a form of rationalization. It is a mental structure with which we process the world. It only becomes a problem when we use it as an excuse for poor behavior or as a manipulative device. I know your love for your pony/dog doesn't fit into that category. ;)

Jim Wright said...

Fathergoose (I assume you're a Cary Grant fan?), you haven't met my cat. ;)

nzforme said...

I actually want a little clarification on the story before I decide whether I'm good with the practice.

As for the "patrolling bases" thing, I do think there's some sort of tacit agreement on the part of the marine mammals here. My limited understanding of dolphins (gained largely from one of those "swim with dolphins" things) is that they'd just bail on the humans if they weren't interested; but are generally happy to stick around and do your stupid tricks for fish.

I'm a little concerned about "look[ing] for underwater mines." Because if it's looking in the sense of looking, that's one thing; but if it's "Hey, Flipper, swim over there and if you come back alive, we'll follow," then, yeah, I think I might have a problem with it.

Janiece said...

nzforme, I honestly don't know. While I have known for many many years that the Navy used marine mammals in this way, I don't have many details on the program and the Navy doesn't exactly advertise it. For obvious reasons - "No, ma'am. No dipshit."

Kazomatic said...

If you are ok with bomb/drug sniffing dogs, I can't see the 'moral dilemna' in the Navy using sea creatures in a similar capacity. Sure, dogs aren't technically wild animals, but using ANY animal like this should provoke the same feeling.

Fathergoose said...

nzforme,

You realize that those fish they feed the dolphins, are typically laced with sedative because the dolphins are so stressed-out.

Janiece said...

Welcome, Kazomatic.

You make a good point. While I'm still working out my own ethical dilemmas surrounding these issues, I realize I'm being inconsistent in how I look at this. Perhaps it's because dogs did co-evolve with us, and are now fundamentally changed as a result of that fact. I need to do some self examination to find out what's causing my rationalizations in this area.

AGAIN with the examined life...sigh.

Steve Buchheit said...

I have a bit of a problem with it from the "dangerous duty" aspect of it. It's not enough to dump me out of agreeing with it being done, but it's enough to make me squeamish.

As to "drawing the line of sentience and intelligence" that's a highly anthropomorphic argument. We baseline the intelligence and sentience on our own experience and then mark we we believe certain animals are.

For example, cows are stupid? Well, no, not really. Cows are very intelligent and social animals. If you've worked with cows to any extent they are given freedom (not many meat or dairy production facilities fall into that category these days) you find that cows know their individualism, have herd hierarchies, know when they need milking/food/shelter, when pressed will defend against predators (normal behavior is to run, though), will "bully" cows not in favor, and will teach each other skills. Now, are they going to start solving quadratic equations any time soon? Probably not. But they are at least on par with dogs.

I still will eat them. Because as Nathan points out, humans are omnivores.

Sheep, on the other hand, are dumber than rocks. But mostly because we've bred them that way. Don't expect one of the few wild sheep breeds left to act the same way as most of our domestic breeds do. And strangely enough except for spiced lamb patties (or gyros) I don't particularly like lamb.

Mostly we identify many animals as lacking intelligence or sentience because we humans can't grasp how they function and where their priorities are. Also because their intelligences don't line up to our expectations and test parameters.

I'm squeamish about using animals in the way we're using these dolphins and seals because we are intentionally placing them in harms way without (I believe) their ability to understand the consequences. We're asking them to fight our battles without them having a stake in the outcome or casus belli. And what does that make us in a moral context?

Janiece said...

Steve, welcome to my deeply ambivalent world.

Anne C. said...

Not objecting to the sentiment but,
slight correction for Kazomatic:

A more accurate analogy would probably* be "If you are ok with dogs finding landmines..."** Drugs and bomb equipment are typically not explosive (though not always in either case).

* note: my knowledge of the behavior of underwater mines derives from the movies (Finding Nemo, et al.) so I'm not positive that they are as sensitive as landmines.

** Dogs have been used to find landmines, I learned that on a M*A*S*H episode. ;)
Also, daughters. (also M*A*S*H episode)

Jim Wright said...

Fathergoose, the marine mammals aren't drugged. I'm not sure where you got that bit of info, but I happened to have spent some time in the marine mammal pens in San Diego and that's simply untrue. Those animals were anything but drugged and they spent an afternoon pounding the hell out of some of my people who had volunteered to be training targets.

The animals are not trained to detonate explosives or other such ordinance. They are far too valuable for that, they are in fact trained not to sacrifice themselves. We don't want them denoting mines in the harbor, or explosives attached to ships. That's what SEALs and UDTs are for, so the explosive can be removed safety once identified. The animals are trained to intercept swimmers and to locate certain objects or to sound the alarm if unusual events occur.

They are often deployed in open ocean - there were teams of dolphins guarding the carriers last time I was in Bahrain. If they were abused or mistreated they would simply swim away.

As somebody pointed out above, the ethics are this are no different than the use of police and military working dogs.

At least in my opinion.

Janiece said...

Jim, I'll let Fathergoose speak for himself, but I thought he was implying those "swim with the dolphins" animals were drugged, not the military animals.

Jim Wright said...

Oh. Well, that I wouldn't know about. Could be. Dolphins could do a serious number on you if they got riled up. I'd think the insurance liability would be huge - maybe they do have them drugged up.

Fathergoose said...

Jim Wright,
First let me apologize for not answering earlier. I typically do not go back and read these responses, however in this case due to the nature of the subject, I am following up.

I was referring to the Dolphins in the "swim with the Dolphins" and also most Dolphins in captivity or shows etc. I have been following this issue for many, many years, and while I am far from an expert, I think I am well informed (but I could be wrong).

Your comments inspired me to make contact with the Navy in San Diego, to see if I could get some clarification and confirmation. They were nice people and surprised that an average Joe Citizen would call to asked questions.

According to the two people I spoke with they do not use any sedatives or anti-depressant on their Dolphins, because their Dolphins "are not under any stress". They do administer supplements and other "medicines" typically by inserting into their food supply, but at times through a feeding tube (I would think that that would add stress, but I could be wrong). They also told me that they frequently transport the Dolphins via air plane and they do very well with that travel. Most of the studies I have read over the years show that transporting Dolphins not only adds extreme stress to them but can lead to a shortened life span. We can all chose what to believe.

While they did not specify the size of the pen, they did speak to the depth (12-15 feet) and the fact that it is in the bay and not some sort of pool. The Dolphins are kept in by netting. I have read conflicting studies on netting vs. pools and size etc. Again, we can all chose what to believe.

They also said what sets the Navy's' use of the Dolphin apart from the "shows" is that they are only asking the Dolphins to do what they do naturally; search for things (hence no additional stress). Additionally they told some fascinating stories about their searches and how quickly they learn.

Thanks for the additional inspiration. I hope this will help people one way or the other.

Janiece said...

Fathergoose, thanks for following up and providing the results of your research.