Animal Welfare, Ethics and the Work of the International Whaling Commission

This was a version of an article that was published, after peer review, in the Journal Of Global Ethics, 7, 3, 2011, pp. 279-90


This article provides a critique of the IWC’s traditional focus on anthropocentric conservation in the governance of whaling. It is argued that this position, which relies on accepting the view that we have no direct moral duties to whales, is out of step with the moral status that now tends, in theory and practice, to be granted to animals. More specifically, anthropocentric conservation conflicts with the widespread acceptance, in theory and practice, that nonhuman animals such as whales have moral standing, that what we do to them matters to them directly. This does not mean that whaling should necessarily be prohibited on ethical grounds, although the animal welfare analysis of whaling sketched in this article does suggest that, on balance, it is difficult to defend morally. Rather, it is being claimed that it is morally objectionable to deny, as the whaling nations do, that the IWC ought to be mandated to consider the welfare implications of whaling.

The international regulation of whaling has reached crisis point as parties to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) have repeatedly failed to agree on a way forward (Epstein, 2008: 199-200; Chasek et. al. 2010: 205-14). This impasse has been driven by the existence of competing interests among the parties, predicated upon different ethical world views. Traditionally, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) – the governing body of the ICRW – has been dominated by the ideology of anthropocentric conservationism, whereby whales are to be preserved, not because they are regarded as intrinsically valuable, but in order to maintain a sustainable stock to allow hunting them to continue. As the membership of the IWC has expanded, and the whaling nations reduced to a small minority, however, there has been enormous pressure, both from the governments of non-whaling nations and NGOs, to take account of the welfare of individual whales. There is currently no agreement on whether animal welfare falls within the IWC’s mandate, and there is no requirement for animal welfare data to be collected. However, animal welfare has been identified as a major issue for resolution in the current reform process. To this end at its meeting in 2010 the IWC agreed to the British delegation’s offer to convene a whale welfare and ethics workshop, which was held in March 2011 (IWC, 2010).

It is the aim of this article to outline and evaluate the ethical approaches current in the debate in order to make a moral judgement on the practice of whaling.2 It is argued that the IWC’s traditional focus on anthropocentric conservation, which relies upon an acceptance of the view that we have no direct duties to whales, is out of step with the moral status which now, in theory and practice, tends to be accorded generally to animals. In particular, such a position conflicts with the widespread acceptance, in theory and practice, that nonhuman animals such as whales have moral standing, that what we do to them matters to them directly. This does not mean, of course, that whaling should necessarily be prohibited on ethical grounds. The acceptance that animals such as whales have a moral right to life would enable us to reach this conclusion. The application of an animal welfare ethic to whaling would, by contrast, require us to weigh up the costs to whales against the benefits to those who seek to catch them. As this article will suggest, a plausible animal welfare case against whaling can be made. At the very least, though, to deny, as the IWC currently does, the validity of engaging in such an animal-welfare centred debate is clearly objectionable morally.

Anthropocentric Conservationism and the IWC

The regulation of whaling provides the classic example of an anthropocentric wildlife treaty, in the sense that the only value of whales is as a resource for humans. Unregulated whaling over many centuries decimated the whale population, bringing many species to the brink of extinction (D’Amato and Chopra, 1991: 28-9). This resulted in the creation, in the 1930s, of an international body to protect whale stocks. Its present incarnation, the ICRW, came into being in 1948. It was designed to conserve whales, not because they were regarded as intrinsically valuable, and therefore worthy of some respect and decent treatment, but because whaling nations recognized that they needed to be conserved in order for hunting them to continue. The convention set up a standing body, the IWC, which is designed to regulate the industry by imposing annual quotas determined by calculating the maximum sustainable yields. The moratorium on commercial whaling, introduced in 1982, was designed, at least for the whaling nations, ostensibly to allow whale stocks to recover. 

The ethical position denoted by anthropocentric conservation is equivalent to the so-called indirect duty view approach to animals. This approach was common particularly prior to the nineteenth century. Thus, for philosophers such as Kant (1965/1797), the treatment of animals may raise ethical issues, but animal interests do not matter in their own right. In other words, ill-treating an animal does not infringe any morally important interests that animals themselves possess, but we may infringe the interests of other humans in the process. The obligation to treat an animal well is, then, an indirect obligation since it derives from the direct obligation to another human.

From the perspective of anthropocentric conservationism, then, since the intrinsic value of animals is not recognised, their protection depends entirely on whether it is in the interests of humans to do so. For example, the need to conserve whale stokes was, at least for the whaling nations, the reason behind the moratorium on commercial whaling, which, as an indirect consequence, has protected at least some whales.3 An indirect duty ethic also justifies protecting whales on aesthetic grounds. The case for whale watching, for instance, is that it benefits humans who get pleasure from observing whales in their natural habitat. In addition, of course, there are economic benefits to be had from facilitating whales from being seen. In fact, it is possible to justify a prohibition of whaling on the general grounds that it serves a wide variety of human interests – including squeamishness, and an emotional dislike of cruelty – to do so. Of course, these have to be balanced against the interests of those humans with an economic or cultural interest in continuing to hunt whales.

Whaling and Modern Animal Ethics

There is a problem with basing a modern wildlife treaty on an ethical framework which denies or ignores the moral standing of nonhuman animals. The problem is that this ethical framework conflicts with the widespread acceptance, in theory and practice, that we do have direct duties to animals; that what we do to them is of ethical importance in and of itself.

Few philosophers would deny now that we owe at least something to animals directly. What we do them, in other words, matters to them and not just to those humans with a vested interest in their protection. Accepting that we owe direct duties to animals, however, does not mean that any use of animals is automatically prohibited. A useful distinction here, following Goodpaster (1978), is between moral standing and moral significance. The former I take to mean the existence of any degree of direct moral considerability, the latter I take to mean the degree of moral worth, so that, as Attfield (2003: 43) clarifies, ‘moral standing…is compatible with different degrees of moral significance’. All that is being claimed here so far is that, for the vast majority of philosophers, animals have moral standing, but that claim is consistent with the position that humans have greater moral worth than animals. In other words, accepting that animals have moral standing does not rule out sacrificing their interests in order to benefit humans who may have a greater degree of moral significance.

            The moral orthodoxy regarding animals, which emerged in the nineteenth century, does seek to make a distinction between moral standing and moral significance. This animal welfare ethic holds that, whilst we owe some obligations to animals on the grounds that they can be harmed directly, it is morally justifiable for humans to exploit them provided that humans benefit significantly in the process. The principle of unnecessary suffering, therefore, can be invoked if the level of suffering inflicted on an animal outweighs the benefits likely to be gained by humans. Robert Nozick (1974: 35-42.) provides a concise but admirably effective definition of animal welfare when he writes that it constitutes ‘utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people.’ Sacrificing the interests of animals for the aggregative welfare, then, is permissible providing that the benefit is significant enough, but treating humans in the same way is prohibited whatever the benefits that might accrue from so doing.

Of great importance in the transformation of the moral status of animals is the recognition of the moral significance of sentience. This claim derives from utilitarianism. As Bentham (1948: 311) wrote, in an oft-quoted passage, ‘the question of moral status is not ‘Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?’.  Animals’ lack of other psychological capacities, such as reason, autonomy, moral agency and so forth, is still, for many philosophers, important but this lack is now more often than not invoked to deprive animals of an increase in moral significance rather than the existence of any moral standing. There is a consensus, in other words, that the sentiency of animals means that we have some moral obligations to them.

             There are some animal ethicists, of course, who want to go much further and accord moral rights to at least some animals. Traditionally, animal rights has been associated with an abolitionist position, whereby the granting of rights to animals is equivalent to a prohibition on their use, as sources of food or models of scientific research, irrespective of what is done to them whilst being used. Regan (1984), for instance, argues that because animals have what he calls inherent value, they possess a right to be treated with respect. Being treated with respect is inconsistent, Regan argues, with being exploited even if the exploitation does not involve suffering. 

I do not think that an animal rights position necessarily equates with abolitionism. If one grants to animals a right not suffer, for instance, then it is not using animals that ought to be of concern morally, but rather what is done to them whilst being used (author, 2010; 2011).  It is important to note, though, that both versions of animal rights use ‘rights’ in the same sense. The purpose of a right is to draw a protective fence around its possessor. In other words, we are not entitled to sacrifice an individual’s right even if by so doing we could maximise aggregate general welfare. For example, if it was possible to find cure for a range of currently fatal diseases by inflicting pain and death upon a small number of humans (or even one) the rights view – or, to be completely accurate, a particular version of rights theory – would impose significant constraints upon so doing, on the grounds that such constraints protect important individual interests.

            What an animal rights ethics prescribes with regard to whaling will depend on which version is adopted. If we accept the strong version of animal rights, whereby the use of animals is prohibited, then whaling would clearly be morally wrong. Finding a method of killing that reduced or eliminated the infliction of pain would not alter this, since killing them, irrespective of the method used, is still a wrong. If, on the other hand, we accord to animals such as whales a right not to suffer, then the moral legitimacy of whaling will depend upon the degree to which it does cause suffering. This, of course, is an empirical question, which will be discussed further below in the context of an animal welfare analysis of whaling. 

For now, it should be noted that the position that whales have a right not to suffer differs from the consideration of suffering in such an animal welfare analysis. In the case of the former, even if there are human benefits to be had from causing whales to suffer these are illegitimate morally because they have been achieved by infringing the rights of whales. In the case of the latter, the pursuit of such human benefits may be legitimate morally depending on the degree to which they can be regarded as necessary. Since whales do not have rights, according to the animal welfare ethic, it may be legitimate morally to sacrifice their interest in not suffering.

            Of course, describing what is meant by an animal rights position, and its implications for practices such as whaling, is easier than justifying according rights to animals in the first place. Such an analysis is beyond the scope of this paper. A starting point would be to establish on what grounds animals are being accorded rights. For some philosophers, mere sentience is enough for such a move (Francione, 2008), whereas for others – such as Regan (1984) – establishing that at least some animals have psychological characteristics beyond mere sentience, is important. This latter move is designed to counter the common argument that personhood – including a range of psychological capacities such as autonomy, rationality, language use, moral agency and so on – is synonymous with human beings and explains our greater moral worth (see, for example, Steinbock, 1978)

There is little doubt physiologically that whales can feel pain. In addition, although it is impossible to ascertain with certainty, there are a number of factors that suggest that whales have considerable cognitive capacities. They have remarkable sensory powers, and complex communication capacities. Moreover, some whale species are social animals, and have developed interspecies communication with dolphins (Lilly, 1967). Dolphins themselves are regarded, by some scientists, as possessing the necessary cognitive capacities for personhood ( Much is often made of the size of a whale’s brain (the biggest being six times larger than a human’s) but this, of course, is insignificant compared to the size of the brain relative to the body. What is more important is the structure of the brain and, in particular, the number of neocortical neurons. Here, research has found that the number of such neurons in the Minke whale is, at 12.8 billion, 13 times that of the rhesus monkey but only two thirds that of the human (Eriksen and Pakkenberg, 2007).

If we accept the view that whales can be regarded as persons because of the characteristics they possess, then they are entitled to the same degree of moral status as human persons. That is, if humans have a right to life, then so do whales. As Regan (1984:110), who holds this view, points out: ‘a painless killing, from the point of view of what a whale loses when killed, is just as harmful, just as great a loss to the whale, as a painful one’. As a result ‘Even were the day to come …where we had the technological means to kill a whale instantaneously, painlessly, that would not cancel the immorality of the killing’. Importantly, though, even if we reject the claim that whales, unlike normal adult humans, are persons, it is still possible to justify the prohibition of whaling on rights grounds, if one accepts that it is credible to accord to them a right not to suffer, and it can be established that whaling causes suffering. It seems to me that such a position is a valid one. Whales clearly have an interest in avoiding suffering whereas it is more contentious to argue they do have an interest in continued life.

Animal Welfare and and the Treatment of Animals in Practice

It is undoubtedly the case that some, maybe many, of those involved in NGOs oppose whaling because they regard it as a practice which infringes the rights of whales. The granting of rights to animals, however, remains extremely contentious. In practical terms, the glaring inconsistency is between the practice of anthropocentric conservation in the case of whales, which denies or ignores their moral standing, and the dominance of the animal welfare ethic in the way animals are treated in general. Thus, the acceptance of the animal welfare ethic has led to the introduction of animal welfare laws in most developed countries. In a world-wide survey by Boreham (2011), for example, it is concluded that ‘it is now quite a rarity for a country to have absolutely no coverage of animal welfare in their laws’ and ‘there is now recognition of animal welfare across all regions, including the Middle East, Africa and Asia’. Many of these animal welfare laws provide legal constraints on what can be done to animals in the pursuit of human gain in a variety of spheres.

            Not only has the animal welfare ethic predominated within individual countries. It is also increasingly the basis for international agreements involving animals. For example, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) – an intergovernmental organisation with a membership of 172 countries including Norway, Iceland and Japan – first adopted culturally neutral standards for the humane slaughter of animals for human consumption in 2005. Although written with specific reference to terrestrial animals in a slaughterhouse environment, the guidelines note that the principles apply to all animals slaughtered outside slaughterhouses. The latest version of the guidelines (OIE, 2009: chapter 7.5) include guiding principles for animal welfare (Article 7.1.2), incorporating recognition and promotion of the ‘five freedoms’4, as well as a chapter detailing recommendations to ‘ensure the welfare of food animals during pre-slaughter and slaughter processes until they are dead’ (Chapter 7.5). Provisions include various prohibitions on animal handling, as well as criteria for the effective application of pre-slaughter stunning (Article 7.5.7). The provisions in this agreement quite clearly recognise the moral standing of animals and are designed to protect their interests in not suffering.

It is true that many treaties concerned with wild animals remain primarily anthropocentric (author, 2005: 118-20). However, the interests that individual wild animals have in avoiding suffering are being increasingly recognised. For example, throughout the European Union there has been enormous political pressure to ban the particularly harsh leg-hold trap in favour of a more humane alternative. Moreover, there is an, admittedly very weak, Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards between the EU, Canada and the Russian Federation signed in 1998, and a similar agreement between the EU and the United States was signed in the same year (Harrop, 2003). These standards set out the permitted length of time it should take for an animal to die once trapped. However weak these agreements are, they do involve a recognition that wild animals are not merely resources for us to exploit as we see fit but entities with moral standing whose interests have, however perfunctorily, to be taken into account.

Even within the IWC, pressure, from non-whaling nations and NGOs, has resulted in some consideration of the welfare of whales. The impact on whales of slaughter methods has been a matter for discussion in the past (see below). More recently, the IWC has started to address issues – such as ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear – which have a significant welfare component (Johnson, et. al., 2005). Clearly, there is a conservation motive here too since if whales are killed by ship strikes, as they usually are, or by getting entangled in fishing gear, then it impacts upon the sustainability of the species.  Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the case that the welfare of individual whales has been a consideration here too. 

For example, at the IWC meeting in Agadir, Morocco, in 2010 the report of a workshop on welfare issues (originally proposed by Norway) associated with euthanasia and the entanglement of large whales was endorsed. This report accepted that, in some circumstances, euthanasia is often the most appropriate option because it is the most humane option ( Such a conclusion is at odds, of course, with an approach concerned exclusively with maintaining species numbers.

The principles of animal welfare, then, are adopted extensively at the national and supra-national levels. Moreover, the welfare of individual whales is given some consideration by the IWC itself when more general human/whale interactions are discussed. Given this, it is inconsistent that animal welfare is not currently regarded as within the IWC’s remit, and that the welfare of whales is not regarded as a factor that ought to be taken into account in discussions about whaling. 

An Animal Welfare Analysis of Whaling

An assessment of the moral acceptability of whaling from an animal welfare perspective requires the weighing up of the costs to whales against the benefits to those who seek to catch them. Any significant human benefit can justify the exploitation of animals, which are not protected by a right to life or a right not to suffer at human hands. Crucially, what is regarded as unnecessary suffering is not static and there are reasonable disagreements about what constitutes ‘unnecessary’ in this context. Indeed, over the past few decades what is regarded as unnecessary suffering in the treatment of animals in general has expanded to reflect a growing awareness of the different ways animals can suffer, changes in cultural norms, and technological developments which have made it possible to use alternatives. Thirty years ago or so, for example, the wearing of fur and the testing of cosmetics on animals was regarded as acceptable.  Now, many people in the developed world frown upon both practices. 

The cost-benefit calculation relating to whaling is not an exact science, but it is possible to sketch out a framework. On the cost side, it is widely accepted that the method of killing whales causes enormous suffering and is likely to be unavoidable. High speed pursuits are likely to cause fear and agitation in the hunted whale. The use of harpoons whose explosive charge detonates inside whales cannot ensure that the animals do not suffer before death ensues. The Japanese Government’s own data suggests that up to 60% of minke whales do not die instantaneously in special permit whaling (Ishikawa, 2005). This is not surprising since whalers are trying to catch a rapidly moving target, which may only appear at the surface for a short period of time. As a result, the chances of the harpoon acting as a stunning device are relatively small. Therefore, the suffering endured by a whale that is caught but not killed instantaneously is caused by four major factors: the fear engendered by the hunt, the initial harpoon strike, the subsequent explosion and the application of ‘secondary killing methods’ (further harpoons or rifle fire, until death ensues).  

It is not difficult to show that the level of suffering involved in killing whaling is greater than that deemed to be ethically permissible in the case of killing domesticated animals slaughtered for food. It is quite clear, for instance, that the methods used to kill whales do not meet the OIE standards described above. To put it starkly, if the OIE published a recommendation that it was internationally acceptable to fire hand grenades into cows as they ran around the field there would rightly be an outcry! Of course, the OIE regulations apply to domesticated animals that are to be consumed for food. However, charges of ethical inconsistency can be raised against those countries which sign up to the standards pertaining to domesticated animals but then completely ignore them in the context of the killing of wild animals for the purposes of commercial meat production. This is particularly applicable given that the major use to which dead whales are now put is, as we will see below, a source of food. 

Against this evaluation, it can be pointed out that greater suffering – than experienced by farm animals or by wild animals such as whales – may, and often is, inflicted on some animals used in experimental contexts. In those cases, however, the benefits, or potential benefits, to shumans and/or other animals may well be greater. In defence of whaling, too, it can be argued that whilst whales suffer in the process of being caught it is probably true that, in general, they live better lives than confined animals (such as veal calves on which see below) on factory farms, where the moral case reform is even greater. In part answer to this, it should be pointed out that the worst excesses of factory farming (for instance, the veal crate, the battery cage, the sow stall and tether and so on) are being dismantled across the countries of the European Union, although it is conceded that world-wide the incidence of factory farming methods is growing.

There is also some validity in the argument, put forward by delegates from whaling nations, that whaling should be compared with other forms of hunting rather than with the treatment of domesticated animals. Here, though, there is a strong case for saying that the method of killing whales involves the infliction of greater suffering than that inflicted upon most other hunted animals.  It is arguably easier to kill a land-based wild animal humanely than it is to kill a whale, although in practice it is conceded that a clean kill is not always possible and suffering sometimes does take place. In addition, although trapping animals can cause great suffering, there have, as we saw above, been attempts to take the welfare interests of individual trapped animals into account. 

Given the suffering inflicted on whales, the moral justification, from an animal welfare perspective, for their continued hunting depends on two factors. The first is the ability of the whaling industry to develop more humane hunting methods. There is some possibility of this. The first discussion within the IWC of the welfare of whales, as opposed to their conservation as a species, occurred in 1958, and this was the start of a process whereby the conservation agenda has been challenged by ‘protectionist’, and later ‘preservationist’ agendas (D’Amato and Chopra, 1991: 32-48). As a symbol of this, a Working Group on Humane Killing was set up within the IWC in 1982, and some changes have occurred as a result of the IWC’s increasing focus on protectionism, a development driven in particular by the approach of the British Government (Harrop, 2003). In addition, the use of cold (non-exploding) harpoons was banned in 1981, although it is still used by subsistence hunters. Moreover, other changes, such as the tailoring of weaponry to the size and species of the whales being hunted, improvements to ‘secondary killing’ methods – concerned with killing whales that have not been killed by the harpoon – and ensuring that welfare standards improve in the area of subsistence whaling, have also been mooted. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how welfare standards can improve dramatically. As Harrop (2003: 85) points out: ‘a large whale in a cruel sea is not an easy quarry for hunting and necessarily the killing of these animals will fail to conform with contemporary welfare expectations’.

            The second factor to be considered in an animal welfare assessment of whaling is the human benefits gained by continuing to catch whales. To what extent, in other words, is whaling, and more specifically the suffering inflicted on whales, necessary? By the beginning of the twentieth century, the products derived from catching whales constituted a significant economic resource.  Whales traditionally had a large variety of commercial uses – most notably the oil extracted from their bodies was used for a variety of purposes and not least for lighting – and it no exaggeration to say that the ‘whaling industry was the equivalent of today’s petroleum industry’ (Epstein, 2008: 28). As substitutes were found, and whale stocks plummeted, however, whaling has long ceased to be an economically important activity, for states at least, although it may still represent an important source of economic value for some small communities.The primary use of the whales caught now is as a source of food. But, despite the fact that whaling nations have sometimes sought to justify whaling in terms of food security (Epstein, 2008: 231-4), whale meat represents a tiny proportion of the food consumed in whaling nations. Indeed, few people, even in whaling nations, have ever eaten whale meat (Allaby, 1986: 146-7). 

In this sense, a useful comparison would be between whaling and the veal trade. Origi­nally, the tender and pale veal meat came from calves slaughtered after a few days of birth before they began to eat grass and their flesh darkened. The problem for the veal producers was that these very young calves were very small. In the 1950s, veal producers in Holland hit upon the idea of keeping the calves alive longer without their flesh becoming any less pale or tender.  During the 16 weeks of their lives, calves were fed a liquid diet which lacked the required amount of both roughage and iron and, because the animal could not be permitted to consume these elements naturally and develop muscles which reduce the tenderness of the meat, it was necessary for them to be removed quickly from their mothers and confined. The most notorious confinement was the so­-called veal crate, a device which prevented the calf from turning round or grooming the whole of its body and which isolated the animal completely from external stimuli and even bedding which might be a source of iron. It has been widely recognised in Europe that the suffering inflicted on calves simply did not justify a delicacy which was enjoyed by very few, and the veal crate was banned in Britain in 1990 and later throughout the EU. It can be argued that whaling occupies a very similar position ethically to the veal crate, and it is therefore vulnerable to the same outcome.

Of course, there will be some economic dislocation caused by the banning of whaling and, from an animal welfare perspective, those who oppose whaling have to show that this dislocation can be readily rectified by alternative sources of employment and investment opportunities. Here, the economic benefit of whaling need to be measured against the income that is currently raised by whale watching and the additional amounts that could be raised if additional resources were put into promoting it. The point, though, is that, even from an animal welfare perspective, the infliction of suffering on animals is not justified by just any human benefits. These benefits have to be shown to be significant. 

Cultural Diversity, Ethics and Animal Welfare

The reality now, as Epstein (2008: 235-43) has shown, is that the pro-whaling discourse is more about cultural identity than it is about economics. A challenge to attempts to pass a moral judgement against whaling on animal welfare grounds, therefore,  is offered by those who say that whaling should be permitted on the grounds that it represents an important part of the culture of the society that permits it, just as, say, bullfighting is revered in Spain or fox hunting in Britain. Thus, it has been claimed that the ban on commercial whaling represents a cultural bias against the Japanese since the consumption of whale meat reflects ‘dietary customs, religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds and emotional sensibilities…For the Japanese people, the whale is not only a food source, but also a basis of culture’ (Sumi, 1989: 318).

Assessing the degree to which cultural diversity is a sufficient justification for the suffering inflicted on whales from an animal welfare perspective is a difficult task, and requires more research in particular to ascertain the actual loss to members of a particular culture if whaling is prohibited. This, of course, is likely to vary. Much will depend on the extent to which the killing and consumption of whales is an integral part of the culture, as opposed to a more general relationship with the animals which might be satisfied by alternative means, such as whale watching, which do not involve the infliction of suffering. What can be challenged effectively is the assumption of moral relativism that often appears to lie behind claims linking cultural diversity with whaling.5 Moral relativism is the ‘idea that the authority of moral norms is relative to time and place…so that they cannot be objectively justified and so cannot be absolute’ (Lukes, 2008: x, 16). The pro-whaling literature tends to link cultural diversity and whaling with moral relativism in this way. Thus, in a Japanese paper seeking to defend whaling, it is stated that ‘there are two kinds of ethics or morals, one is innate and universal, and the other is acquired and culture-social specific’ (Hayashi, Morishita and Ohmagari, 2006)

This statement expressively acknowledges that only a part of ethics is ‘innate and universal’ whilst that part of ethics concerning whaling is ‘acquired and culture-social specific’. There is, however, a strong case to be made in favour of the claim that the ethics involving the treatment of whales ought to be governed by a universal ethic too. By utilising familiar arguments, it is possible to suggest that that such a relativistic view of morality in the case of animals is mistaken. In the first place, although it might be the case that moral diversity does exist in the world as a descriptive fact, we cannot move from observing this diversity of morals to the conclusion that ‘therefore there is no one true morality and no privileged value perspective’ (Lukes, 2008: 133). In the context of this article, therefore, just because a particular culture regards whaling as ethically acceptable does not automatically mean that it is so. Thus, it may be correct to say, as one ethical defence of whaling does, that: ‘Depending on one’s cultural as well as ethnic background, there are differences in the things people judge to be cruel’ (Hayashi, Morishita and Ohmagari, 2006), but that, by itself, is not a justification for the claim that all actions deriving from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds are thereby morally permissible.

Second, a moral relativist position underestimates the degree to which we can reach considered judgements on moral questions involving animals. Such a judgement includes assessing the logical consistency of a moral claim as well as the validity of any factual claims made. Central to many competing moral positions are facts which are empirically verifiable. To give one relevant example, Descartes (1912/1637) justified the acceptability of using animals in scientific experiments on the grounds that they could not feel pain. There are few thinkers who would now accept this empirical conclusion and therefore the major justification for the normative claim no longer holds. Of course, it is the case that a moral conclusion, that experimenting on animals is wrong, cannot be derived from the empirical fact that animals feel pain, since such a conclusion requires a normative premise to the effect that we ought not to experiment on beings who can feel pain. Nevertheless, facts can have an important bearing on moral arguments. We have seen, for instance, that the moral case for and against whaling involves the use of factual statements – for instance, on the cognitive capacity of whales or on the economic benefits which can be derived from their exploitation – which can be subject to empirical verification. 

Third, the moral relativist position underestimates the degree to which there is consensus on the moral status of animals. As this article has revealed, there is evidence that most governments, at least in the developed world – including the governments of whaling and non-whaling nations – agree that we ought to take into account the interests of animals in our decision-making, that what we do to animals as, say, sources of food or as experimental subjects, has an impact on their welfare, and that we have moral obligations to ensure that we try as far as possible to protect the interests of animals. 

Fourth, it can be argued that the reason why the extensive degree of moral consensus is not fully appreciated is because of a failure to distinguish between the concepts of the good, on the one hand, and, on the other, the right. Those who seek to link moral relativism with cultural diversity in order to justify the continuation of whaling seem to confuse a theory of the good with a theory of the right. A conception of the good refers to what an individual or a group regards as an ideal way of living. For instance, I might base my life on the teachings of the Bible, whilst others might base their lives on the Koran, and others might adopt a secular life-style. The list of possible conceptions of the good is endless. A desire to spend a great deal of time on the sofa watching game shows on television is as much a conception of the good as is going to the opera. It is a central feature of liberal political thought that the state (or indeed the international community) should not intervene to favour one conception of the good over another. 

Those supporting whaling argue that their conception of the good involves catching whales and consuming whale products, and that non-whaling nations and peoples have no business in intervening to impose their way of life on them. Before this is accepted, however, we need to contrast a conception of the good with the idea of a right. A right is what individuals are owed. At the very least, it represents a right to be free of interference that causes harm. Crucially, in liberal political thought, the right takes precedence over the good. In other words, ‘the ‘rights which people have, and which it is the job of the state to protect, come first and stand as constraints on the conceptions of the good which people can choose to pursue’ (Mulhall and Swift, 1992: 30) So, if my conception of the good consists in engaging in practices that causes harm then the state should intervene to stop it. In other words, the moral pluralism that liberals advocate has to be a ‘reasonable pluralism’ (Rawls, 1993: xix-xx). For instance, most would argue that a conception of the good that involves genital mutilation is unacceptable because it causes harm to others. Likewise, the vast majority would regard slavery in a similar light, as a conception of the good that is unacceptable because of the harm caused by pursuing it.

The point I am edging towards here is that, when it comes to conceptions of the good, moral pluralism is to be encouraged. We do live in a world of variety and it is not possible, or desirable, to intervene by claiming that one good is better than another. However, there is a great deal of consensus, across different cultures and different nations, on what can be regarded as a right and therefore what conceptions of the good are beyond the pale morally. To give a stark example, a culture that sought to inflict severe harm on a racial minority would be universally condemned.

Those who seek to defend whaling on the grounds of moral relativism tend to regard the activity as a conception of the good. Those who seek to prohibit whaling are then accused of seeking to impose their own conception of the good on others. This is the grounds for the charge that to seek to do so is an example of cultural imperialism. The case against whaling, however, involves much more than this. To regard whaling as a legitimate conception of the good, to be weighed against competing and equally legitimate conceptions of the good, is to disregard the harm that is inflicted on whales in the pursuit of this particular lifestyle. Built into the claim of cultural relativism, therefore, is an assumption either that whales cannot suffer or that their suffering is inconsequential. The animal welfare case against whaling is based on the assertion that neither assumption is justified. As a result, we are entitled to take into account the suffering of whales in building a moral case against the practice. It will not do, in other words, to dismiss opposition to whaling on the grounds that it is merely one conception of the good amongst others. 


This article has suggested that the IWC’s continuing adoption of anthropocentric conservation conflicts with the widespread acceptance, in theory and practice, of an ethic that accords direct moral standing to nonhuman animals. Few philosophers today, for good reason, would deny that we have direct moral obligations to animals such as whales. Such an ethic is now widely accepted in practice in the case of domesticated animals, and is increasingly a consideration in the way in which wild animals are treated by humans. The IWC itself has recognised this ethic in some human/whale interactions, but has denied its validity in the case of whaling. Of course, the application of animal welfare principles to whaling does not necessarily justify its prohibition on moral grounds, although the adoption of an animal rights ethic which accorded a right to life to whales would do so. The first step, therefore, should be an amendment to the convention schedule creating a permanent working group on animal welfare and mandating the submission of animal welfare data. 

The animal welfare analysis of whaling sketched in this article does suggest that, on balance, it is difficult to defend morally, although more work is needed to establish the case. Despite the suffering that does occur, at least sometimes, during the catching of whales, whaling is not now justified primarily for the economic benefits it produces but for its cultural value. This justification, however, is vulnerable to the charge that alternative, non-exploitative, uses of whales are equally appropriate. There are strong grounds for thinking that the cultural benefits claimed for whaling cannot be justified on the grounds of a moral relativism, as some whaling advocates seek to do. Nevertheless, an animal welfare case for whaling centring on the cultural benefits that may derive from it, is not dependent on the validity of moral relativism but could be based merely on the balancing of interests. There is no case, however, for the IWC to fail, as it has done, to engage seriously with the process of balancing these interests. What is clear is that a version of cultural diversity which holds that it is justifiable to deny that whales have any moral worth, and that we are entitled to do anything we want to them, is inconsistent with the widely-held principle that they have intrinsic value.


1.         acknowledgements omitted.

2.         It is not being claimed here that moral arguments are likely to be the key determining variable in the development of the international regulation of whaling. Mitchell (1998) has shown that in the case of whaling a scientific-based discourse has had more impact than those that are interest or moral-based. By contrast, Epstein (2008) points to the importance of an anti-whaling discourse and minimises the political importance of the scientific community. This article does not take a position in this debate. All that is being claimed is that moral arguments ought to be decisive, irrespective of whether they are or not. 

3.         Whaling still persists under the guise of ‘scientific’ whaling conducted by Japan under the auspices of the IWC. In addition, Iceland and Norway set themselves annual quotas for the commercial hunting of whales having lodged objections to the moratorium. About 1,500 whales were killed by these methods in 2008. In addition, the IWC awards Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quotas for whale hunts in Russia, the USA, Greenland and St. Vincent. Between 300-400 whales are caught annually under these quotas (

4.         Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from physical and thermal discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.

5.         The position taken here is also one adopted by Barry (2001) and Casal (2003).


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