Dolphins and Whales and Fishes, Oh My!

During Spring Break, I had the pleasure of being taken (read: dragged) to Orlando, Florida on a family vacation to a waterpark run by SeaWorld. I really don’t like SeaWorld. I love marine life and observation. In fact, when I went to SeaWorld as young tot, I loved it, and was captivated by the giant orca that did tricks in the tank, that, to me, also was giant. It wasn’t until I was a bit older and had seen a handful of documentaries that I started to realize that maybe it is not right that animals are exploited for human entertainment.

Photo credit: Michael Lowin.

SeaWorld does, in some cases, rescue dolphins who have been separated from their pods, and they have done research on lesser-known breeds. Their parks have a focus on conservation of wildlife and environmental education. However, they also are well known for causing collapsed dorsal fins, decreased lifespans, and inhumane, cramped living conditions. There are countless animal-rights oriented websites that detail the humane violations that Seaworld’s endeavors exhibit, but that’s nothing new. You can read about them here, here, and here. Personally, I think that there’s no excuse for treating a living creature that way. Then again, I’m also the kind of person who will find a spider in my room, catch it, and take it outside to set it free rather than killing it. Clearly, my opinions about the treatment and deserved moral standings of non-humans might differ from those of most people. Because I believe in approaching situations and conflicts with ethics as opposed to pure emotions, let’s try a thought experiment. What would happen if we address the dilemma of Seaworld through various ethical frameworks? Instinctively, I think that this sort of situation is morally simple, because of how it hurts animals and because it is not necessary to humans, but I’d like to approach the question: What would justify the maltreatment of wildlife?

UTILITARIANISM would suggest that SeaWorld’s acts against the nature of animals are acceptable if, and only if, the total benefit outweighs the total detriment and pain caused to the animals and anyone indirectly affected. That would mean that keeping the animals in crowded tanks, in shallow waters where they can easily get sunburned, and making them perform several shows per day is worth the benefit to the people being employed. Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian thinker, would further differentiate the pain and pleasure afflicted upon the various parties by classifying pleasures as “higher” and ‘“lower.” Some things only provide a basic level of pleasure, whereas others are more distinguished. Thus, when a higher pleasure, such as watching an opera, can be chosen over a lower pleasure, such as eating 57 cupcakes, it should be. Bentham believes that the type of pleasure should matter in the utilitarian calculation. Could you make a case that watching a whale roll around a small tank is anything but a lower pleasure?

IMMANUEL KANT, philosopher and ethical theorist, did not believe that it was morally acceptable to treat persons simply as a means to an end. That is, he believed that persons should be considered ends in and of themselves. If we consider an orca, for example, to be the person in play here, then SeaWorld is not right because the orca is being treated just as a way to achieve some kind of benefit. But Kant himself wouldn’t have considered an orca to be worthy of this consideration, as he believed that animals were intended to be merely a means to an end, as he said they were incapable of reason and therefore mere instruments for humans to get what they want.

JOHN RAWLS, a political philosopher, had a theory that involved the “veil of ignorance,” which places people in a hypothetical situation in which they know none of their undeserved, unearned properties. That means that they don’t know what their race, or gender, or status, or, in this case, species, will be. If you, in the “original position,” had no idea who you’d be, what body you’d be born into, what your appearance or IQ or family or situation would be, what social conditions and rules would you agree to? That is, if there was a chance you’d be in the least advantaged position, what is the minimum requirement you’d settle for? While this theory is also intended to apply just to humans, I think that it can easily be extended to other sentient beings in order to figure out how they should be treated.

This ethical code speaks to me the most, because it forces people to practice empathy for people in situations that are outside of their own control. Behind a veil of ignorance, and even with the knowledge that I am not by any means the least benefitting party in this debate, I would not agree to the conditions at SeaWorld. Most people would agree that it’s not right to force a creature to live in captivity with an escalated risk of premature death, collapsed dorsal fins, and psychosis. SeaWorld is following their San Diego park’s lead by phasing out their orca shows, but they should also go another step and stop holding animals in confinement when it’s not absolutely necessary.

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Sarah is a senior, maybe.