Skip to content

On the Supposed Importance of Cultural Traditions for Whaling Practice

Today is the first day of the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The commission, set up in 1946 to ensure the proper conservation of whale stocks and assist in the orderly development of the whaling industry, determines how many, which, and for what purpose, whales can be killed. The meeting beginning today is important because it will re-open discussion about Japan’s right to whale for the purposes of conducting scientific research. This past March, Japan lost this right because its findings were deemed to be of little use, and it was clear that the “scientific” nature of the killings were only a ruse. The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, but still allows that the meat of whales killed for scientific purposes could be sold for profit. The Japanese whaling industry exploited this fact in order to sustain what was effectively a commercial whaling industry. Whales were killed in the name of scientific research, and then the meat was sold commercially. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that this violated the requirement imposed by the IWC that the killing of whales be only “for the purposes of scientific research.”

Of the many arguments deployed by the Japanese authorities concerning their right to whale, one is of particular interest to me; namely, that whaling constitutes an important aspect of Japanese culture, and thus ought to be permitted to continue.[1] In what follows, I claim that arguments based on cultural tradition alone are insufficient to generate a right to whale. In cases where the species of whale being killed is not endangered, then (on the condition that the method of whaling used is sustainable) no further reasons need be given in order to defend the practice. Whaling will be just like eating meat,[2] and arguments from cultural tradition will be superfluous. However, if the species of whale is endangered, then whaling is permissible only in cases of practical necessity.

1. Non-Endangered Species of Whale:

In the case of non-endangered species of whale, arguments from cultural tradition are superfluous. This is because, when the species of whale is not in danger of becoming extinct as a result of being used as a food source, then no special argument is needed in order to justify the practice.[3] Animals are killed for food all the time. If we think that this is a defensible practice, as many do, then there doesn’t seem to be any principled reason why killing whale should be impermissible. Indeed, much of the criticism of the meat industry concerns the conditions in which the animals are kept; given that whales live in their natural habitat until the point at which they are herded and killed, whale meat may be more ethically sourced than, for example, most beef.

But, if there is no principled difference between eating whale and eating beef or chicken, and whale meat might actually be more ethical from some points of view, then the deployment of an argument from cultural tradition to defend the practice is superfluous. If the practice is generally permissible, then no special status as a member of a community that has always whaled will add to one’s right to whale.

2.a. Endangered Species: In Cases of Necessity:

In cases in which the species of whale is not endangered, and the form that the hunting takes does not risk endangering that species, no special argument is needed in order to justify the practice. When the species of whale is endangered, it’s important to separate cases of necessity from non-necessary whaling. In the former case, arguments from cultural tradition will be superfluous—as in the case of whaling of non-endangered species; in the latter, I maintain that it will be insufficient to justify the practice.

When I say that whaling is necessary, I mean that the meat (or perhaps blubber and other parts of the whale) taken from the killing of a whale are essential to the continued survival or basic well-being[4] of the group that has hunted it. Cases of necessity can take different forms: from a groups inhabiting a region that has no other meat source, to one-off cases in which a person must hunt to survive. Now, it seems to me that cases of necessity also make arguments from cultural tradition superfluous. This is because whaling—even of an endangered species—would be permitted on the grounds that it is necessary for survival. I think that it would take a very staunch vegetarian to deny that at times when it is necessary for survival it is okay to kill and eat an animal. This seems to me to be the case even if the species of animal is considered endangered.

The exact nature of the necessity I’m invoking is difficult to determine precisely. For example, it’s difficult to know what to say of a group that chooses to live in an area that makes the hunting of an endangered species of whale necessary. In such a case, whaling is necessary to the survival of the group given that they live where they do. But, living in that particular place may not itself be necessary. If we assume that the group is one that has a cultural tradition associated with that particular place, and thus strong non-sustenance-related reasons for staying, we might say that an argument from cultural tradition permits them to stay in that place, which in turn makes whaling necessary. Importantly, I don’t believe this constitutes an argument from cultural tradition for whaling itself.

2.b. Endangered Species: Non-Necessary Whaling:

Finally, I want to deny that it is permissible to hunt endangered species of whale, even if a group has a tradition of hunting that species. It is this claim, I believe, that will generate the most disagreement. When discussing the traditions of other cultural groups, especially with a view to suggesting that some practices should be forbidden, it’s easy to come off as overbearing, paternalistic, or patronizing. So, it’s important to tread carefully. In claiming that the non-necessary hunting of endangered whales by cultural groups that have a history of such hunting is impermissible, I ask that you consider the following:

1)    It would be bad for a species of whale to become extinct, or in danger of becoming extinct, as a result of our actions.

2)    We should act so as to reduce the number of bad things that happen.

3)    The non-necessary hunting of endangered species of whale constitutes a violation of our obligation set out in (2) as a result of (1).

4)    (2) applies to universally (that is, to everyone).

If we add to these four statements,

5)    Cultural tradition does not exempt us from the obligation stated in (2).

And most contentiously,

6)    The badness of a species becoming extinct or in danger of becoming extinct as a result of our (i.e., human) actions is worse than the badness of an interrupted cultural tradition.

Then we get,

7)    It is impermissible to hunt endangered species of whale if that hunting is not necessary to one’s survival.

I think that (1)-(4) are quite straightforward, and that (5) follows from (4). Obviously, the difficult proposition is (6). Part of the reason we might find this difficult, I believe, is that traditional, sustenance whaling practices are very likely not responsible for the fact that some species of whale are endangered.[5] Thus, the restriction of the practices of some is a result of the poor action of others. But, aren’t we familiar with obligations that are generated this way? For example, we might have an obligation to lower our carbon emissions as a result of others making no attempt to do the same. It is no fault of ours that others have acted in a way that is detrimental to the environment, but the structure of our obligation changes as a result of that action. It is unfortunate, in this instance, that the result of the poor actions of some is the necessity of the cessation of the cultural practices of others. However, I don’t believe this is enough to make those practices permissible in the face of the badness of possible extinction, or near extinction, of a species. Thus, in this last case, I believe that rather than being superfluous, arguments from cultural tradition will be insufficient to justify the practice of whaling. In the three types of case I have considered, then, arguments from cultural tradition do not justify whaling.

By Luke J. Davies. Luke has a Twitter account; you can follow him!

[1] This, of course, has nothing to do with whether or not previous killings were scientific in nature or not. Rather, it is an argument that the killing of whales need not promote a scientific cause given that cultural tradition alone should justify commercial whaling.

[2] I should say that I think there are good arguments for vegetarianism and that we should therefore refrain from eating whale and any other animal. However, it’s not my purpose here to defend vegetarianism, but merely to demonstrate that arguments from cultural tradition are either superfluous to, or insufficient for, arguments for whaling.

[3] This doesn’t mean, of course, that the practice shouldn’t be limited in some way, just like other sources of meat. For example, the animal should be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible, the method of whaling used should not risk putting the species of whale into the endangered category, etc.

[4] I say basic well-being to avoid needing to claim that whaling is only necessary in cases when death will result from abstaining from the practice. This seems too strict a requirement. It is enough that the quality of life will be drastically reduced.

[5] Certainly, as the case of Japan—mentioned above—indicates, it is not always the case that participation in the traditional practice of whaling will manifest itself in small, non-mechanized, non-invasive hunting. I’m remaining purposefully vague on the nature of traditional whaling in the hopes of capturing the widest range of possibilities. There isn’t any particular cultural group or practice that I have in mind here.

Share on

13 Comment on this post

  1. Thank for you for this interesting post. Two points:

    (a) I believe you are granting WAY to much to your dialectical opponent when you are presupposing (as I understand (6)) that there are two commensurable types of values we should weigh in the tradition vs. whale case. I think this is granting too much because it leaves it open whether, in different circumstances, for instance if killing all the whales there is brought about a lesser good than interrupting the tradition (where “good” is stipulated to the be the common metrics to adjusticate between our desire of biodiversity and the desires of the killers to maintain the tradition) would suffice justify killing whales.

    Yet, it seems that traditions have only non intrinsic (i.e. instrumental) or non moral (i.e. social) value, while the life of individuals is both intrinsic and moral in the sense that the interests on which it hinges are intrinsic properties of their bearers and morally relevant. So it might not be possible to measure the two, which is of course a welcome result for whales if moral values always defeat non-moral/instrumental ones.

    (b) If this is right, this suggests what I think is a better argument for whales: instead of basing the argument on the risk of extinction, which then might suggest that we don’t want to protect whales for their own sakes but because they play a certain role in a biodiverse environment that suits our interests, we could base it on particular individuals whose morally relevant interests are not given their due. It would not be too difficult to argue that whales are bearers of morally relevant interests since they are among the most cognitively developped species living in the oceans.

    By the way, there is a huge hypocrisy from governments that permit killing large mammals such as whales, rhinos, elephants, etc. when they invoke the tradition: for many of those governments give a crap about tradition only if traditions is lucrative (i.e. through taxes on products in a regulated/overwatched market. If tradition per se played was a sufficient justification, they would not put some many taxes on the commercial products dependent on such animals while at the same time ensuring that the corresponding products don’t end up on black market at cheaper prices. The argument that fighting black market allows for a better control of the production hence manifests appropriate concerns for those animals is utter bullshit.

    1. Thanks for your comments Andrews! (I’ve put a somewhat longer response below, though I think we are in agreement on this).

  2. I would be interested in hearing the argument for (6). You discuss and reject one reason that a person might resist (6), but I don’t think that this is what motivates your actual opponents here. You are arguing against people who really do believe (I take it) that the badness of interrupting cultural tradition is (sometimes) worse than the badness of a species’ extinction. So it seems necessary to have a positive argument for (6), or else this turns into an unproductive clash of intuitions.

  3. I too was thinking that premise 6 is the real test. Exactly why would species going extinct be a bad thing? Rarely would the extinction of a species cause such catastrophic changes in an eco-system, that those effects wouldn’t have been seen in the species becoming endangered. 99% of all species have gone extinct in the history of the earth. Extinction is a natural process, as well as a man-created one. Do species have some kind of intrinsic worth? If so, should we clone mammoths, to bring extinct species back into existence?

    Could it be that some species are more valuable than others? And if so, why couldn’t some species not be as valuable as some cultural traditions?
    I think that we could make the case that some species are more valuable than others, because of their effects on an ecosystem. It would be sad if Panda Bears go extinct, but they don’t serve important ecological niches…. but it would be very bad for prairie dogs to go extinct because they are important to the health of prairie land ecosystems. If a group decided that it wanted to hunt panda bears as part of their culture, I would be more sympathetic to their plight, than if they considered hunting prairie dogs.

  4. I don’t want to interfere with your questions to the author, Regina and Wayne. But you might want to consider the idea that whales (like other mammals) have a basic interests (i.e. it constitutes an irreplaceable good for them) in living and not suffering. Second, you might contemplate the principle that, all other things being equal, basic interests always defeat competing, less basic interests (i.e. it does not constitute an irreplaceable good for Chinese, Japanese and Norwegians to maintain their “tradition” of mass slaughtering large sea mammals, as witnessed by the empirical fact that usually, human groups don’t cease to exist if some of their traditions disappear). Finally, you might want to acknowledge that eradicating whales is a blatant instance of destroying what constitutes for whales an irrepleaceable good, namely living and not suffering. Those premises might even lead you to conclude something along the lines of the author’s (6) is true, provided of course that the moral issue with extinction is not merely a new hole in the network of biological relations between organisms and their environment (holes in networks of biological relations can be filled, and even if they could not, we’d need a further reason to believe that they are bad holes), but the infliction of suffering and the destruction of goods that are more basic and prima facie more morally relevant than the goods possibly brought about in the process.

  5. I think you’re each right to push on (6) as the key premiss. In answer to the general thrust of your comments, Regina and Wayne, I think that something along the lines of what Andrews has suggested is the appropriate way to go. This would (admittedly) shift the focus from the badness of killing the remaining members of a species (i.e., causing a species to become extinct) to the badness of killing individual animals that have an interest in remaining alive.

    One way, perhaps, to defend the way I have presented the argument above would be to point out that causing a species to become extinct involves the killing of a number of individuals that are members of that species. Individuals that have a interest in not being killed; so, the discussion of extinction is necessarily a discussion of the killing of a number of individuals that have an interest in remaining alive. Furthermore, the badness of such killing is either 1) worse than, or 2) incommensurable with the interruption of a cultural tradition. With that being said, I think it would have been better to discuss (as I think all of your comments indicate) the badness of killing rather than the badness of extinction. I was hoping to avoid arguments against killing in general, in order to leave open the possibility that killing is permissible but not defensible from an argument from cultural tradition. Perhaps that wasn’t as feasible as I had hoped.

    1. Right, if killing individual animals is a wrong, then it doesn’t make sense to say that there would be cases when it would be permissible to hunt them if they were not endangered. I’m a vegetarian, and I’m sympathetic to whales in general, but the argument in OP just wasn’t sitting well with me that somehow species, a super-entity of sorts that really couldn’t have any kind of interests, would some how have an interest when they became endangered, but no interest if they were culled humanely.

      Off topic, but your post got me thinking about at least a possible middle ground position that hasn’t been explored by anyone, as far as I know, for humane consumption. Most compassionate consumption advocates will agree that hunting wild game is preferable to farmed animals usually. But if we really wanted to minimize the amount of negative utility generated from killing and eating meat, we should be hunting the largest animals… Larger animals provide more food for the negative utility generated. You could probably even assume that whales are more intelligent, thus have a greater capacity for pain, and you still would have an argument for hunting whales that aren’t endangered.

      Of course the better solution is still vegetarianism.

  6. I’m convinced that it is bad to kill a whale. I’m also convinced that it is bad to end a species. I think we can assume that your opponents here might accept these claims as well. But your argument needs to not only establish that these are bad things. You also need the *comparative* claim: that killing a whale (or making whales extinct) is worse than ending a cultural practice. This is where your opponents must disagree with you. I’m wondering what the argument for this comparative claim is. So far, it looks like an appeal to intuition. But I take it that your opponents do not share your intuition. Above, Andrews suggests that cultural practices are only valuable in instrumental or even non-moral ways. But I haven’t seen an argument for *this* claim either, and again it is one that your opponents may reject.

    (My motivation here, by the way, is not to defend whaling. I’m interested in how we deal with genuine cultural differences in moral worldview, and this seems like a very good example of the problem.)

    1. Above, Andrews suggests that cultural practices are only valuable in instrumental or even non-moral ways. But I haven’t seen an argument for *this* claim either, and again it is one that your opponents may reject.

      Cultural practices are usually not aimed at satisfying basic interests, i.e. interests on which depend ireplaceable goods. Rather, cultural practices are usually deemed valuable by institutions insofar as they embody meanings, symbols, expressions — in short, insofar as they encode all sorts of patterns of communication. Their primary value is thus typically just as instrumental as the value of sharing these patterns of communication, which is often, from the point of view of the institutions that deem they valuable, to give people that get acquainted to them a feeling of community.

      This is no argument, it’s an observation intertwined with a couple of definitions.

      This contrasts sharply with morally relevant interests of animals, especially large mammals such as big apes, elephants and yes, whales. Satisfying those does not have value in virtue of being ascribed value by institutions; rather it has value in virtue of constituting goodness for their bearers — were those interests frustrated, it would constitute an irreplaceable loss for their bearers, for instance pain, suffering, anxiety, eventually death.

      This is not an argument either, but just definitions applied to what I take to be empirical facts.

      So, coming back to the main point: ultimately, it is the identity between the bearers of the interests and the individuals for whom those interests should be primarily satisfied that grounds the suggestion that there is an intrinsic reason to favour whales over Japanese friends of the tradition; and it is the fundamentality of those interests that grounds my suggestion that those interests and only them could be morally relevant.

      1. Thank you for following up Andrews. I wonder about the status of the claims in your first paragraph. What sort of institutions do you have in mind? If you are thinking of corporate or governmental bureaucracies in large, secular, (post-)industrial societies, then you are probably right: that is is indeed likely to be the attitude they have toward cultural practices. But I doubt that it is true of religious institutions, or institutions formed by minority groups in opposition to a dominant majority. These institutions (and the individuals they serve) are very unlikely to regard their cultural practices as replaceable, or even as instrumental. Why should the attitude of secular bureaucracies trump the attitude of other cultural institutions?

        1. Interesting question. As I see it, there is no important distinction to be drawn between traditions depending on their source(s). As I said, to me tradition it’s just about showing to one another that one belongs to a common past and share common values (i..e moral or non moral): in other words, give one another a sense of community through a common narrative (maybe a better word than those I’ve used in my previous post as it encompasses the aforementioned concepts of communication).

          Now of course narratives are important for precisely this purpose, and whether they stem from personal initiative (i.e. some very famous fictions participate to it), from a group (i.e. as in some myths) or from an institution (i.e. the history courses in school), and whether are manifest through a text (i.e. all the previous examples) or through concrete actions (i.e. dancing, serving tea, praying, etc.), is not really relevant for assessing them.

          What is relevant for assessing them I think is whether they serve their purpose well, and whether in doing so, they respect or are in principle compatible with values that independent from fulfilling this purpose, and in particular, values that transcend the particular narrative people want to relate themselves to.

          Pace moral relativism, and pace scepticism about empirical facts grounding the attribution of basic interests to large mammals, values that transcend such narratives are those whose realization depend on satisfy such interests.

          So I think the only way out for Japanese to object to obligatory measures aimed at protecting whales is to contest the empirical evidence for ascribing whales basic interests and/or to argue that the value of satisfying basic interests of whales differs significantly from waters to waters.

          Both reactions seem to me hopeless. But of course, I doubt the Japanese authorities are remotely interested in philosophical argumentation. What they want is $, or more precisely, ¥. With the idea of honouring the tradition in mind, ask them to exempt whale products from tax and you will see how quick the appeal to tradition disappears.

Comments are closed.