I shall limit my defense to the Norwegian hunt of minke whales - the only avowedly commercial whaling season at present. Thus I do not necessarily endorse, say, the Japanese hunt of various species that arguably are endangered, though some of the ethical arguments apply to whaling generally.
For starters, a few facts.
* Of the about 80 known species of whale, the only one hunted by Norwegians is the minke. This is the smallest of the baleen whales and one of the smallest overall, with a typical adult weight of 4-5 tons. Written sources confirm that minke whales have been hunted in Norwegian waters for at least 1200 years, but the practice may well be significantly older.
* This notwithstanding, there are no indications that the minke whale has ever been endangered. Certainly it isn't now: By the latest estimate from the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) - the intergovernmental body for regulating whaling, more on which below - there are 112 000 specimens in the North East Atlantic alone. The Norwegian government sets annual quotas by an internationally uncontroversial, conservative method for calculating sustainable harvests. The latter is applied by the country's own maritime researchers, who are leading in the field and operate independently of the government and commercial interests. This year's season, to close on August 31, has a total quota of 797.
* Contrary to myth among certain activists, the Norwegian hunt is consistent with international law. The reason is that Norway lodged an objection to the moratorium on commercial whaling passed by the IWC in 1982, which exempts it from the ban under existing rules. Norway objected because the ban ignored the advice of the Scientific Committee and so contradicts the IWC's express purpose: not to abolish whaling, but "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry." Nevertheless, the hunt was not resumed until 1993, after the IWC repeatedly refused to evaluate the effects of the ban with an eye to establish new quotas as the agreement schedules for 1990 "at the latest." The then PM, Gro Harlem Brundtland - formerly chair of the World Commission of Environment and Development - asked rhetorically upon announcing the decision in 1992:
When did the international community decide to stop hunting and using animals for human consumption? I ask you that direct question because it is impossible to continue with international cooperation on the resources of the ocean, or any other resource... if preservation alone dominates the issue.
* Though whaling is of no national economic importance, it fills a need for supplemental income during the summer on the part of many local fishing communities, especially in the far north. Proceeds from the sale of meat allow people to carve out a living in a region where agriculture and manufacturing are not viable alternatives. The small coastal vessels used, typically family owned, are converted fishing boats between 50 and 80 feet long, staffed by the owner along with a crew of two to seven. Only modern grenade harpoons are used, and only by governmentally licensed hunters who must pass an annual proficiency test.
* The hunt enjoys solid popular support across the political spectrum. Most Norwegians regard it as a natural and sensible harvesting of marine resources conducted as a matter of national sovereignty, and view the protest as so much irrational, sentimental clap-trap. There is no domestic anti-whaling movement; all the leading environmentalist groups support the hunt. Even the local branch of Greenpeace declined to set sail this season: The whaling brouhaha, it explained, distracts from real environmental issues like the pollution of the seas. As to the international protest, this has been subsiding lately to the extent that a DC lobbyist on the Norwegian government's payroll since 1995 was laid off this year.
And now for the ethical arguments. Assuming that the Norwegian hunt is indeed sustainable, I will consider two main objections to same. The first one has three subdivisions.
1. Some claim it is inherently wrong to kill whales for food, regardless of whether this is sustainable or not. I will not argue here that they are necessarily mistaken. However, I will argue that their claim, to have any merit, must at least be consistently applied to all animals unless relevant ethical distinctions can be made. After all, the farm animals most of us eat on a weekly or daily basis are also killed prematurely, indeed, often in infancy; without a chance to avoid this fate; and frequently in violation of their trust in human beings. How exactly is whaling any more problematic than this? Why is the production of a whale burger (see photo) any more objectionable than that of a Whopper?
a) A common reply centers on the 'special beauty' of cetaceans. But really that is hopeless on so many levels. First, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, the foremost anti-whaling nation happens to be Australia, where kangaroos are legally slaughtered by the millions every year for meat and hides. Apparently the 'cuteness' of the kangaroo, which has made it the world's most readily recognized symbol next to the Statue of Liberty, is insufficient in Australian eyes to end this practice. Second, to measure moral worth by visual appeal obviously leads down a dismal ethical road. Are the lives of physically attractive people more worth than others, for example? Surely not.
b) Somewhat more promising are arguments from whale intelligence, since most would agree that a high level of awareness is one quality that counts against the slaughter of any creature. Thus opponents of whaling note that certain cetaceans, specifically dolphins, score well on animal IQ tests. This, they suggest, boosts the likelihood that their relatives such as the minke whale have rich inner lives that should not be ended. There are several problems here, however. For one thing, while dolphins are undoubtedly among the smartest animals around, their cognitive capacity has proven extremely difficult to gauge. Apparently, all that can be said with certainty is that they are at least as smart as canines, although they tend to score lower than ferrets on tests of set inference. Secondly, bulkier whales - and especially the minke, a solitary species - do not exhibit the signs of intelligence found in certain species of dolphins. At present there is no scientific basis for ascribing to these a significantly higher intelligence than say, that of cattle, routinely butchered everywhere except in India. There is certainly nothing to indicate that minke whales are smarter than pigs, who are sometimes claimed, like dolphins, to have the intelligence of human toddlers.
Arguably, no complex animals should be killed, to be on the safe side. But a global moratorium on this has yet to be proposed; and absent that, a special prohibition of whaling is double standards.
c) At this point, anti-whalers often take refuge in an argument from redundancy. Whaling for meat, they maintain, is especially bad because 'unnecessary' to feed human beings. It is true that whaling is unnecessary in this respect, but so is all meat production under modern conditions. Plainly, since a vegetarian lifestyle is now easy to pursue, no meat is a necessary commodity in developed countries:
Lamb chops and pork, no less than whale steak, are conveniences. And a whale kill provides more meat than does the slaying of other animals. Going vegan on ethical grounds may be admirable, but non-vegans are in no obvious position to condemn sustainable whaling, while even vegans should have no more of a beef with this than with other ways of obtaining flesh.
Especially not if they count themselves environmentalists: Whaling burns less fuel per unit meat produced than other kinds of meat production. In fact, producing a kilo of beef requires 30 times more energy than the harvest of a kilo of minke whale meat. Besides, the latter does not pollute the ground, erode the soil, or release methane into the atmosphere.
2. The other line of argument is concerned not with the killing of whales per se but with the suffering inflicted in the process. Undeniably, the putting to death of a whale involves a measure of suffering, and the question of whether this measure is acceptable is a serious one. In the Norwegian season of 2002/3, where inspectors clocked the time to death for every animal, an estimated 80 percent died instantaneously; the average time to death was about two minutes. Acceptable, or inhumane?
There may be no objective answer to that. What is clear, though, is that the methods of Norwegian whaling are at least as humane as those employed in other forms of big game hunting with respect to both death times and accidental maiming. So far I have heard of no international movement against, say, the Norwegian moose hunt (and how about those Australian kangaroos?).
Most importantly, compared to the standard way of meat production in the developed world - factory farming, whereby animals are locked up in concentration camps for their entire lives and denied basic natural behavior - whaling seems vastly superior in terms of animal welfare. As the philosopher Peter Sandøe, leader of the Danish Ethical Council concerning Animals, told the Danish newspaper Politiken on November 7 1993, in connection with the resumption of Norwegian whaling:
[O]bviously, it is extremely difficult to compare the whale's relatively short-lasting, but intense pain when being killed, with the other more long-lasting but less intense forms of suffering experienced in cattle farming. Personally, I have no problems in making such a comparison. The conclusion of this comparison is that I would rather be a minke whale living in freedom until the final few minutes of pain, than a... pig or hen...
In Norway, I might add, there are severe restrictions on the industrial keeping of livestock, including limits on how much milk any cow can produce and an effective ban on the intensive confinement of sows. Now, it is of course possible that whaling and factory farming are both reprehensible practices which a more enlightened posterity will contemplate with horror. If so, the wrongness of the one does not justify the other. But there remain, after all, those wise words in Matthew 7 about the moat in one's brother's eye versus the beam in one's own. The calls in such countries as Australia and the USA, both of which produce most of their meat in brutal factories, to impose sanctions on Norway over its harvest of minke whales do have an air of surreality about them. From an environmentalist perspective, furthermore, one feels that both should first get around to signing the Kyoto Agreement before lecturing others on green values.
In conclusion, while I am open to debate and may conceivably change my mind, I submit, with suitable trepidation, that my choice of dinner was legitimate as well as tasty.