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Dolphins, and the right side of history

Hacker News can be an amazing community. I witnessed it myself this weekend, when they came to the aid of a friend in need, helping us locate a competent lawyer on another continent on a Sunday - something which would probably have been unthinkable a mere decade ago. I was truly blown away.

Then, yesterday, an article was posted about a proposal to grant Cetaceans the right to life and liberty. The gist of it is that some visionary scientists at the "American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada, the world's biggest science conference" have proposed a "Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans", in particular giving the the right to not being killed for no good reason, and to not being held in captivity and displayed to people for entertainment.

It was discussed on HN here. There, I'm afraid I was disappointed. Many comments were dismissive, ridiculing the proposal, suggesting dolphins need to pay taxes, sign an interspecies treaty or conduct an armed insurrection to earn these rights.

I don't disagree that the proposal seems ridiculous on the face of it. Grant rights to dolphins? Really?

And yet. And yet, can anyone intelligent seriously doubt that we will eventually reach a point where other intelligent species (and, in fact, perhaps even all animal species) will have rights?

I am not a vegetarian, and in fact I eat a lot of meat (shameful, considering I believe that it is in fact wrong). However, I have no doubt that some time in the future, be it 10, 50, or 200 years, assuming humanity lasts that long, we will look back at our treatment of animals for thousands of years and feel as deeply ashamed of it as we do of our treatment of our fellow human beings for those same thousands of years.

The proposal to give rights to Cetaceans, and indeed other animals, may be 10, 20 or 50 years early. But it will be passed eventually. Someone had to start somewhere, and an improbably brave collection of scientists and philosophers just did. They are heroes.

The golden rule of ethics, "do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you", has been applied to an ever increasing circle since it was developed in the Axial age. Today, we are enlightened enough to apply it, more or less, to all of humanity, including such previously neglected groups as women, non-citizens, foreigners, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, ethnic minorities, and so on. It may not be applied perfectly everywhere, but at least civilised people do feel an appropriate amount of guilt and even indignation when they see a minority being mistreated in a way that they would not want to be subjected to.

How can there possibly be any doubt that this circle will, as we progress, be widened to increase other species, starting with those of them who are most like us in mind or in body?

For an enlightened, science-minded community like HN to dismiss this proposal as harshly as many commenters did, to stand so clearly and proudly on the wrong side of history, is shameful.

I propose a simple rule to HNers before commenting on such futuristic issues. Before ridiculing a visionary proposal to move the world forward, ask yourself whether you're on the right side of history, whether your view will still be sensible a hundred years from now, or whether you're just giving in to today's prejudices.

If you're dismissive of rights for dolphins today, where would you have stood on the issue of slavery three hundred years ago?

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