Image of A controversial test for self-awareness is dividing the animal kingdom.

“It’s not the ability to recognize yourself in a mirror that is important,” he would come to believe. “It’s what that says about your ability to conceive of yourself in the first place.”

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It's interesting you posted this in psychology as you could have just as correctly posted it in philosophy.

For Reiss and Marino, the dolphin study was not only convincing, it was a call to action. They and others argue that passing the mirror test indicates a level of self-awareness that makes it unethical to keep a species in captivity. "These animals have at least some level of self-awareness, and if they do, they know where they are, they can be aware of the limitations of their physical environment," Marino says.

Putting aside for a moment if the mirror test is really demonstrating self-awareness (instead of, for example, just differentiation), the question, obviously, is whether or not self-awareness is the sole requirement for ethical obligations. Sam Harris put the question differently in a TedTalk called Science can answer moral questions:

Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks? Why don't we feel compassion for rocks? It's because we don't think rocks can suffer. And if we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.

In other words, Harris thinks the capacity for suffering is the basis for ethics. Reiss and Marino think self-awareness is the basis. Who's to decide, especially if morality is relative?

Then you have the utilitarian perspective, which leads to debates about animal research alternatives. If you say it's unethical to keep animals in captivity, you likely lose most of the medical treatments that are available to us because of animal testing. Many humans benefit from experiments on animals, so the utilitarians would probably argue the greatest happiness for the greatest number ethically justifies keeping animals captive and for tests.

And let's not forget about us carnivores who provide the market for breeding animals for the sole purpose of eating. The challenge with arguing the morality of eating meat is the fact that humans aren't the only carnivores. Are lions unethical when they kill and eat buffalo?

It's obvious that animals have the capacity to suffer. But I'm not sure being able to suffer or self-awareness are the only proper foundations for ethics to consider. For example, should we consider the ability to integrate the information of your senses with logic, abstracting it all into concepts? As far as I know, animals can't do this - only humans can. So, whereas humans can reason "it is wrong for me to kill that man because [x]," animals can't create a concept of "it is wrong to kill."

And let's also not forget that animals aren't the only ones we keep in captivity. We put people in jail when we consider someone a danger (and, more and more, because we consider them a danger to some political belief, but don't get me started). We put people in psychiatric institutions when we consider someone unable to reason. And we even outright torture and kill people... just because. That leads me to ponder whether humans are the best authority on what is and is not ethical. Who are we to judge?

As long as morality is relative, anything goes. It doesn't matter what the facts are, whether a capacity for self-awareness or an ability to suffer. All that matters is who has the gun. And that is unfortunate.

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The video was SO cute! I'm glad it didn't show the dolphins having sex in the mirror. That would have been awkward. smiley

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