Sunday, January 20, 2008

Whale of a Time

It never ceases to amaze me how people, when arguing for or against this or that particular thing, will almost invariably weaken their (otherwise sound) reasoning with superfluities and appeals to emotion (not to mention liberal doses of hypocrisy). Take the most recent international outcry over Japan's killing of whales in the name of "scientific research". There is, in fact, a rather simple, rational argument against killing whales. It has nothing to do with whether or not whales are endangered, nor is it connected to the (extremely speculative) notion that whales are "intelligent" or "sentient" (and usually following from that, "noble" and "beautiful").

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.


  1. Great post!

    "It is a tradition that they wish to continue, presumably because some Japanese are emotionally attached to it."

    This is a great point to make. Most debates have layers upon layers of hypocrisy, so it's nice to see it pulled apart like that.

  2. Rob,
    Yeah, Singer is no slouch, that's for sure. I figured I'd better write this post in case anyone got the wrong idea from the short one I wrote on Friday...

  3. There will always be some causes / species / issues which are more emotive than others; whaling, like it or not, is one. For the Japanese to call 'hypocrisy' against the West may be technically correct, but a) that doesn't in the slightest justify their whaling, and b) it doesn't enhance the Japanese PR case - quite the opposite.

    And Japan may not be the only country which practices whaling, but they're the only one which does so on an industrial scale, the only one who are trying actively to lift the IWC moratorium by bribing poor (and sometimes landlocked) countries to vote their way, and the only one who are intending to build a new factory ship to process more whales. These days, Whaling = Japan is, I'm afraid, pretty much an unshakeable truth.

    Perhaps the scariest thing historically has been the denial and censorship in the Japanese media; worthy of China at its worst...

  4. Tafkass,
    I'm more than willing to concede most of the points you've brought up (I did state clearly, I think, that I'm against whaling--at least as it's currently practiced).

    I'd only mention, though, that Japan's "bribes" (in the form of foreign aid) are no more or less sinister than the aid offered by other rich countries to poor ones. I don't believe for one second there's anything altruistic in what is commonly called "foreign aid".

    As far as the Japanese media is concerned, while I certainly have issues with the way "news" is presented in this country, the claim of censorship is a completely false (but commonly heard) one. I, or any Japanese citizen, can access the same information you can. There is no impediment to this access. In fact, pick any topic you like that shows Japan in an unfavorable light and you will find it being discussed in Japanese and by Japanese on any media you care to mention. If there is any "censoring" going on it is, in fact, being carried out by the Western media in its selective reporting of Japan. I don't, for example, know anybody here who eats whale! I've been here 10 years, Tafkass. Doesn't this strike you as a bit odd? (Clearly, though, some people, in some areas, are attached to it, and they have a disproportionate amount of influence). It's also clear to me that most Japanese are against revising their constitution, to use another example. But when I look in the NY Times or other major Western media what do I see? "Rising Japanese nationalism!" It's a load of fucking bollocks, I tell you.

    I'm in basic agreement with you, Tafkass, about the whaling thing. I would argue, though, that demonizing the Japanese internationally will not save any whales and may even cause them to dig in their heels. As I mentioned earlier, the whaling lobby here is disproportionately influential. To my mind, though, their current activism only underscores the simple fact that the market for whale products in Japan is dying out. I feel that, left to their own devices, the Japanese will eventually give up whaling on their own--not because some white guys came and scolded them, but because they've come to see that it's just not in their interests.

  5. Unfortunately, then, it would appear that we have an impasse; the more the Japanese "dig their heels in" on whaling, the more organisations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd will go after them. And there's only going to be one winner in that PR war; the Japanese claims of "eco-terrorism" just make them look silly.

    In regard to censorship, I was talking historically rather than at the moment; the whaling debate has (as I understand it - obviously I don't live in Japan) been covered very sparsely in the past because of the disproportionate influence of the whaling lobby which you describe yourself, and is only now opening up to a full and frank debate. So hopefully now, Japanese public opinion will start to chime with that of the rest of the world and realise that it isn't Japan's noble traditions, but a bunch of nasty self-interested bureaucrats, which are under fire.

    I agree entirely that it's unfair and stupid to demonize an entire nation because of one issue, and concur that most people in the West are ignorant about Japan - but that doesn't justify factory ship whaling in the slightest. It's not about "white guys scolding", it's about huge global revulsion for absolutely loathsome practice, and there should never be any question of leaving Japan to stop in its own sweet time.

    BTW, I feel the same anger about fur farming, battery chicken farming, animal experiments for cosmetics, drift-net fishing, deep-sea bottom trawling and several other issues, but none of them has a national "poster-boy" in the same way as Japan is for whaling. In terms of animal issues, no other country governmentally endorses something which considered completely unacceptable in the rest of the world (although your lot aren't far away with the seals...)

  6. Apologies for the crappy editing in that last comment. I think you get the drift (net).

  7. Tafkass,
    Again, I have no basic issue with your positions, maybe just a difference of opinion regarding means and methods.

    To play the devil for a moment (and to re-pay that low blow seal comment!), if I were a Japanese whaler, I might say something like "we'll stop hitting the high seas and slaughtering whales, when you guys stop invading other countries and killing innocent people."


  8. No offence intended on the seals... you're right, I think we essentially agree (although obviously most Westerners are just as set against the invasion of Iraq as they are against whaling...)