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The ethics of whaling

Whaling once again hits the news!

Bioethics expert Michael Reiss introduces some of the ethical considerations associated with whaling.

Transcript

Michael Reiss: When one is thinking about ethics in biology, quite an interesting example is actually whaling because in most countries in the world, including New Zealand, the vast majority of people just believe strongly that whaling is wrong. But of course when I go to Japan or discuss with Norwegians about whaling you get a very different viewpoint.

One way of trying to look at whaling from an ethical perspective is, quite carefully, to go through different ethical frameworks and try and work out, for example, how similar is whaling to farming? Is whaling really different from keeping sheep and killing sheep? Now the short answer to that is actually, yes it is. We could be 99% certain that a sheep has less than about 30 seconds of pain at the end of its life. Whaling is still pretty much of course hunting creatures in the wild, where you are not so good with a harpoon. You definitely often have highly intelligent animals in pain for 10 minutes. But when one thinks about it, okay, maybe whaling is worse in that sense than killing a sheep, but what about, for example, killing game birds? Now that I think is much more interesting, and the answers there are not quite so straight forward.

So if one thinks of how one might try and use ethical principles to decide if whaling is acceptable or not, you’d have to first of all look at all the benefits and all the harms that whaling does. Now the most obvious harm is to the individual whales that get killed. And then you might say perhaps there are benefits of humans enjoying whale meat, distasteful as that sounds to some people.

Then one would look at rights and duties, and then one would generally get to the question about do whales have rights? Now that is really an interesting question in itself, but my own view is that if humans have rights, it's quite difficult then to argue that no other animal does. And certainly I would have thought that whales, you could argue, whether they have a right or not, we all have a duty to ensure that if they are getting killed that are not killed in too much pain.

And then the other framework that one may particularly apply in this instance is something about virtue ethics. Does being a whaler or eating whale meat lead you to be a better person or a worse person?

Another point I would like to make about whaling is, deciding whether or not it is acceptable can depend on the culture in which you are, in a number of ways that are quite complicated. First of all, if one bans whaling from a culture where it is truly indigenous, it could be argued you harm quite a lot of people within that culture. You take away from them something that has truly been an indigenous part of their culture. It is analogous to forbidding people to speak in their first language or to undergo certain activities such as traditional dance, for example.

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