If We Could Talk to the Animals, How Should We Discuss Their Legal Rights?

April 1, 2024

The intricate tapestry of animal communication has long fascinated humanity, with the sophisticated linguistics of cetaceans holding a special place of intrigue due to the cetaceans’ significant brain size and apparent intelligence.  This Essay explores the legal implications of the recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), specifically machine learning and neural networks, that have made significant strides in deciphering sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) communication.  We view the ability of a being to communicate as one—but not the only—potential pathway to qualify for legal rights.  As such, we investigate the possibility that the ability to communicate should trigger legal rights for beings capable of communicating, whether they be cetaceans or other creatures.  As the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) project, which is actively working to unlock sperm whale language, moves closer to enabling meaningful human-cetacean dialogue, we stand on the precipice of a transformative understanding that may compel a radical reevaluation of animal legal rights and, perhaps, human legal rights as well.  In fact, viewing eligibility for legal rights through a more objective lens, such as a communication criterion, may even improve our understanding of human legal rights, their origins, extent, application, and even entitlement itself.

We begin with an overview of animal communication, emphasizing the complex acoustic patterns of sperm whale songs and clicks, which have been captured and analyzed through the collaborative efforts of marine biologists and computer scientists.  This cross-disciplinary effort has yielded what the Dominica Sperm Whale Project has named “Flukebook”—a robust dataset that informs machine-learning models with acoustic signals, contextual behavioral data, genetic data, and geospatial information—that opens the door to the potential of an interspecies large language model (LLM) useful for communication among sperm whales and humans.

Having established that the prospect of communicating with another species is becoming increasingly feasible, we then delve into the philosophical and ethical considerations that accompany such a breakthrough.  Drawing upon the perspectives of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, Professor Peter Singer, and Professor Martha Nussbaum, we investigate the ethical foundations for considering the legal rights of cetaceans, or other nonhuman animals.  This investigation is juxtaposed with historical whaling laws and modern legal frameworks, probing the adequacy of current laws, norms, practices, and attitudes regarding emerging interspecies communication.

Finally, we propose a novel legal paradigm that contends with the implications of cetacean communication capabilities.  As we inch toward potentially understanding requests, preferences, or even rules or laws of sperm whales, the ethical imperative to reexamine their legal standing becomes undeniable.  This Essay examines practical legal issues such as jurisdiction, standing, representation, autonomy, and the feasibility of animal citizenship.  In fact, it envisions innovative legal constructs such as a “Magna Carta Cetacea” and a “United Species” extension of the United Nations.  In addition, we endeavor to articulate an objective standard by which any being capable of the requisite communication qualifies for legal rights.

In this potential legal frontier, the communication of preferences by an animal may necessitate that we seriously consider conferring legal rights to those animals.  This groundbreaking dialogue could not only elevate the rights of whales, but also provoke a broader discussion about the principles underlying human legal rights themselves, challenging our current anthropocentric legal systems to evolve.  As we decode the “codas” of sperm whales, we are challenged to reenvision the legal and normative matrix of life on Earth and our place within it, guided by potential principles such as mutual respect and legal recognition that transcend species boundaries.