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Hypocrisy on the High Seas?

By Peter Singer (January 14, 2008)

Thirty years ago, Australian vessels, with the government’s blessing, killed sperm whales off the West Australian coast. Last month, Australia led international protests against Japan’s plan to kill 50 humpback whales. Japan, under mounting pressure, announced that it would suspend the plan for a year or two. The change in public opinion about whaling has been dramatic, and not only in Australia.

Greenpeace began the protests against Australian whaling, and the government appointed Sydney Frost, a retired judge, to head an inquiry into the practice. As a concerned Australian and a philosophy professor working on the ethics of our treatment of animals, I made a submission.

I did not argue that whaling should stop because whales are endangered. I knew that many expert ecologists and marine biologists would make that claim. Instead, I argued that whales are social mammals with big brains, capable of enjoying life and of feeling pain—and not only physical pain, but very likely also distress at the loss of one of their group.

Whales cannot be humanely killed—they are too large, and even with an explosive harpoon, it is difficult to hit the whale in the right spot. Moreover, whalers do not want to use a large amount of explosive, because that would blow the whale to pieces, while the whole point is to recover valuable oil or flesh. So harpooned whales typically die slowly and painfully.

Causing suffering to innocent beings without an extremely weighty reason for doing so is wrong. If there were some life-or-death need that humans could meet only by killing whales, perhaps the ethical case against it could be countered. But there is no essential human need that requires us to kill whales. Everything we get from whales can be obtained without cruelty elsewhere. Thus, whaling is unethical.

Frost agreed. He said that there could be no doubt that the methods used to kill whales were inhumane—he even described them as “most horrible.” He also mentioned “the real possibility that we are dealing with a creature which has a remarkably developed brain and a high degree of intelligence.” Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s conservative government accepted his recommendation that whaling be stopped, and Australia soon became an anti-whaling nation.

While Japan has suspended its plan to kill humpback whales, its Japanese whaling fleet will still kill about 1,000 other whales, mostly smaller minke whales. Japan justifies its whaling as “research,” because the International Whaling Commission’s rules allow member nations to kill whales for such purposes. But the research seems to be aimed at building a scientific case for a resumption of commercial whaling; so, if whaling is unethical, then the research itself is both unnecessary and unethical.

Japan says that it wants the discussion of whaling to be carried out calmly, on the basis of scientific evidence, without “emotion.” The Japanese think that humpback whale numbers have increased sufficiently for the killing of 50 to pose no danger to the species. On this narrow point, they might be right. But no amount of science can tell us whether or not to kill whales.

Indeed, Japan’s desire to continue to kill whales is no less motivated by “emotion” than environmentalists’ opposition to it. Eating whales is not necessary for the health or better nutrition of the Japanese. It is a tradition that they wish to continue, presumably because some Japanese are emotionally attached to it.

The Japanese do have one argument that is not so easily dismissed. They claim that Western countries object to whaling because, for them, whales are a special kind of animal, as cows are for Hindus. Western nations, the Japanese say, should not try to impose their cultural beliefs on them.

The best response to this argument is that the wrongness of causing needless suffering to sentient beings is not culturally specific. It is, for example, one of the first precepts of one of Japan’s major ethical traditions, Buddhism.

But Western nations are in a weak position to make this response, because they inflict so much unnecessary suffering on animals. The Australian government strongly opposes whaling, yet it permits the killing of millions of kangaroos each year—a slaughter that involves a great deal of animal suffering. The same can be said of various forms of hunting in other countries, not to mention the vast amount of animal suffering caused by factory farms.

Whaling should stop because it brings needless suffering to social, intelligent animals capable of enjoying their own lives. But against the Japanese charge of cultural bias, Western countries will have little defense until they address the needless animal suffering in their own backyards.


Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is the author of the seminal book Animal Liberation and, with Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.