By Marcelo Zapelini
The debate on whaling has resurfaced recently. Such a debate, in my opinion, rekindles the question of the ethical status of animals over humans, and raises questions about how they are treated by us. My goal is to express just one point of view on the topic.
I want to begin quoting David Hume: from the point of view of the universe, the life of a human being has no more importance than that of an oyster. If this is accepted, the lives of the oyster, a cat, or a whale are of no more importance than that of the human being as well. But, as Hume himself noticed, our lives matter to us. And the lives of all animals can also matter to us – or not. But from a point of view of reason, what I would like to emphasize is: it is me – and in a degree perhaps a little smaller the people who likes me – who gives importance to my life. And I recognize an equal importance for the lives of other human beings, without exception.
However, when it comes to animals, although there are reasonably reasoned moral defenses that their lives are as important as those of humans, they leave something to be desired. Peter Singer, for example, takes a utilitarian view: animals feel pain and pleasure as much as humans, and the goal of moral action is to maximize pleasure and / or minimize pain. Therefore, we should not cause them pain. Whale fishing, then, is to cause these beautiful and intelligent animas an unnecessary pain. But killing a mosquito Aedes Aegyptii to prevent it from transmiting me dengue is also causing you unnecessary pain.
Singer’s argument is simple and incisive, but fails to convince me for one simple reason: we know that animals feel pain and have more intelligence than we initially thought, but we do not know if they are capable of making moral decisions. The whales themselves seem to demonstrate behaviors of solidarity, friendship and care (including other species), but are moral (therefore, rational) actions or mere instinct? Singer uses reason to define how men should morally treat animals, but this puts the human being at a higher level, since it has not yet been proved that animals are right, and that they understand morality.
Currently, only three countries keep hunting whales: Japan, Iceland and Norway (as per https://www.bbc.com/news/2015/12/151214_vert_earth_caca_baleias_lab). In Iceland, whale meat is served in restaurants that attend mostly tourists, as few Icelanders eat it; thus, the justification given would be commercial exploitation, but it also appeals to an old tradition. In Norway, fishing is also justified on commercial grounds; however, on the Norwegian coast, fishermen defend the activity on the grounds that it is an ancestral custom. Japan, for its part, defends fishing for scientific reasons – but the meat is sold to restaurants, so the activity is commercial.
To analyze the three cases, I do not refer to Singer’s argument – which could be applied to everyone, but it does not convince me. I appeal to arguments closer to a Kantian moral imperative. In order to analyze the Japanese case, the facts impose an interpretation of the presented argument: it is simply a lie, therefore, it hurts the moral duty. Japanese fishing has a purely commercial purpose, as there is no need to kill hundreds of whales annually for “scientific research” – even if the Japanese were the leaders in this field of science (whale research), very few would have to be sacrificed for that. In the case of Norway and Iceland, it must be have in mind that customs and traditions exist, but also evolve. And customs and traditions, however important they may be for human life, must be subject to a rational and therefore moral examination so that they can be justified. That is, customs are not the ultimate foundations of morality: they help to justify moral positions, but they are not capable of doing so without appealing to other reasons.
Thus, regardless of recognizing in whales a moral status equivalent to ours, there is no moral basis for hunting these animals: neither custom nor science suffices as arguments for the practice. But the sheer lie and the mistakes of the past are, in my point of view, sufficient to condemn this activity morally.