Peter Singer is perhaps one of the more famous of the world's philosophers (if you're unfamiliar with Singer you can check out his website here, or read about him at his Wikipedia entry.) Last week the online version of The Japan Times had an article by Singer entitled "Hypocrisy weakens West's whaling protests". In this article he presents us with the best, most rational argument against whaling:
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.
"Causing suffering to innocent beings without an extremely weighty reason... is wrong." That surely must be right, and I think most people (Japanese included) would agree with this. And I'm not aware of any argument denying the fact that harpooned whales die painfully and slowly. Couple this with the even more obvious fact that there "is no essential human need that requires us to kill whales" and that's all she wrote, right? (Singer, by the way, also points out that if whaling is unethical, so is "scientific" whaling done with a view to developing a sustainable resource.)
As if the above weren't enough, Singer goes on to (quite rightly) criticize the common Japanese claim that the anti-whaling crowd too frequently argue from emotion rather than reason or common sense. I think the Japanese are actually correct on this point, but as Singer argues
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.
Arguments that appeal to tradition generally have no foundation in reason, in fact they're more often than not downright irrational and sometimes just plain stupid or even dangerous. Anyone who says to me "I do X because my daddy and his daddy and his daddy did X" comes across sounding like an idiot. No less so than someone who says killing whales is wrong because they're "beautiful" or "intelligent" or whatever.
The biggest problem, however, for Westerners generally and, right now, the Australian government in particular, is that they have no reasonable claim to the high moral ground in this issue. To put it briefly (and bluntly), they're all hypocrites. As Singer writes,
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.
There's little doubt in my mind that a combination of muddy thinking, hypocrisy, and cultural biases (sometimes bordering on or crossing into racism) has informed the typical Westerner's view of the Japanese whale hunt. Australia itself used to hunt whales, up to just 30 years ago. It wasn't the Japanese that decimated the world's whales. In fact, Japan is hardly the only country that continues to hunt whales. None of this means that killing whales (at least by the present means) is OK, but if I were of the mind to criticize a nation for doing something I found morally repugnant, I might try to make sure my own house were in order first.