Whales-the Sacred Cows of the Sea?

Peter Singer

Although the Japanese have called off plans to kill fifty humpback whales (at least for a year or two), their whaling fleet will still kill nearly one thousand whales of other species this year. In response to international protests, the Japanese have responded that the West is trying to impose its values on other countries. For the West, the Japanese maintain, whales are sacred like cows are in India, and, just as it would be wrong for Hindus to try to prevent people in the West from killing cows, so it is wrong for people in the West to seek to prevent the Japanese from killing whales. Is there any truth in this claim?

Opposition to whaling in Western nations does not go back very far. Australia led the recent protests against Japan’s plan to kill humpback whales, yet, barely thirty years ago, Australia was a whaling nation with its own vessels hunting sperm whales off the West Australian coast. Greenpeace initiated the protests against Australian whaling. The government appointed Sydney Frost, a retired judge, to head an inquiry into whaling. As a concerned Australian and a philosophy professor working on the ethics of our treatment of animals, I made a submission to the inquiry.

I did not argue that whaling should stop because whales are endangered. I knew that many expert ecologists and marine biologists would put forward that claim. Instead, I argued that whales are social mammals with big brains capable of enjoying life and of feeling pain—not only physical pain but very likely distress at losing one of their group. Whales cannot be humanely killed—they are too large, and, even with an explosive harpoon, it is difficult to hit a whale in the right spot. Moreover, whalers do not want to use a large amount of explosive, because that would blow the whale to pieces, and the whole point of whaling is to recover valuable oil or flesh from the whale. Hence, whales are harpooned, and they typically die slowly and painfully.

These facts raise a big ethical question mark over whaling. If there was some life or death need that humans could only meet by killing whales, perhaps an ethical case for it could be made. But there is no essential human need that requires us to kill whales. Everything we get from whales can be obtained elsewhere and without cruelty. Causing suffering to innocent beings without an extremely weighty reason for doing so is wrong; thus, whaling is unethical.

Frost agreed. He said that there could be no doubt that the methods used to kill whales were inhumane—he even described them as “most horrible.” He also mentioned “the real possibility that we are dealing with a creature that has a remarkably developed brain and a high degree of intelligence.” He recommended an end to whaling, and, the conservative government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, accepted the recommendation. Australia soon became an antiwhaling nation, but not, I think, because Australians started thinking of whales as sacred in any way. Rather, they saw the killing of whales as the unnecessary destruction of remarkable animals about which rather little is known.

Japan justifies its whaling as “research,” because a provision in the rules of the International Whaling Commission allows member nations to kill whales for research purposes. But the research isn’t aimed at enhancing our understanding of whales as intelligent social animals living in an environment very different from our own. That would lead to research that was observational rather than lethal. Japanese “research whaling” seems to be largely directed at building a scientific case for the resumption of commercial whaling. If whaling is unethical, then the research is itself unnecessary and unethical.

Japanese whaling proponents say that they want the discussion of whaling to be carried out calmly, based on scientific evidence, and without “emotion.” They think that the evidence will show that humpback whale numbers have increased sufficiently for the killing of fifty without posing a danger to the species. On this narrow point, they could be right. But no amount of science can tell us whether or not to kill whales. “Emotion” is just as much behind the Japanese desire to continue to kill whales as it is behind the opposition of environmentalists to that killing. Eating whales is not necessary for the health or nutrition of the Japanese. Rather, it is a tradition that they wish to continue presumably because some Japanese are emotionally attached to it.

The best response to the Japanese argument that “the West is trying to impose its peculiar attitude toward whales on Japan” is that the wrongness of causing needless suffering to sentient beings is not a culturally specific value. It is, for example, one of the first precepts of Buddhism, one of Japan’s major ethical traditions. But Western nations are in a weak position to make this response, because they themselves inflict so much unnecessary suffering on animals. The Australian government has come out strongly against whaling but permits the killing of millions of kangaroos each year, a slaughter that involves great animal suffering. The same can be said of various forms of hunting in other countries, not to mention the vast quantities of animal suffering caused by factory farms.

Whaling should stop because it brings needless suffering to social, intelligent animals capable of enjoying their own lives. Against the Japanese charge of cultural bias, however, Western nations will have little defense until they do much more about the needless animal suffering in their own countries.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, How Are We to Live?, Writings on an Ethical Life, One World, and, most recently, Pushing Time Away.


Although the Japanese have called off plans to kill fifty humpback whales (at least for a year or two), their whaling fleet will still kill nearly one thousand whales of other species this year. In response to international protests, the Japanese have responded that the West is trying to impose its values on other countries. …

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