Whales are dignified, intelligent and sensitive beings. We have known this for some time, and yet still they remain, much to our shame, susceptible to human assault.
In recent centuries, great cetaceans have been driven nearly to extinction while nations competed in the hunt without restraint. But we now live in globalized times. The world has become smaller and, of necessity, more coordinated. The old order based on full state sovereignty is being partially replaced by an integrated system of international law. While this change is most visible in the domain of human rights — which has become seen as supported by the “universal conscience of the world’s peoples” — other spheres have been affected, too. Not least, the worldwide treatment of whales, a subject which has returned to the headlines as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) considers plans to green-light limited commercial whaling.
In recent decades, a broadening international consensus has begun to emerge in the policies of those institutions concerned with whaling — in itself an unpleasant term for what should accurately be called whale hunting — and in particular that of the IWC, created in 1946 to coordinate the different national industries. As legal experts have said, such policies, by moving from the initial stage of free resource to the present stage of preservation marked by a moratorium on commercial hunting, have come close to acknowledging a major theoretical shift — the adoption of the view that whales are entitled to life. And, though there still are countries — Japan, Norway and Iceland — which, through various devices, keep hunting, the relevant premises for such a shift are unquestionable.
The idea of duty to whales is gradually being translated into obligation under international law. At the same time, the “universal conscience of the world’s peoples” is relevant, too: evidenced by the millions of people who regard the killing of whales as inconsistent with current moral ideals; by the number of international NGOs — such as the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society — which constantly work to implement such ideals; and by the global sympathy for those who wage war against whale hunters.
To this, a powerful new element should be added. We have discovered that whales “sing.” Scientists have explained that whale societies display complex and stable vocal and behavioral cultures previously suggested only for humans. More impressively still, research into whale behavior points to an ability to look to the past, present and future — functions on which consciousness of oneself as a distinct entity existing in time are mounted.
A relevant backward-looking attitude is revealed, for instance, when hordes of whales, returning to their original territory after long-distance trips, first sing the old songs of the previous year, and then the new songs; the existence of a conscious self in the present, with the attendant ability to attribute mental states to others, is apparent in cases of whales doing acrobatic maneuvers to warn approaching vessels of their presence; and female killer whales’ tutoring of their offspring in the dangerous activity of shallow-water hunting offers evidence of the capacity for formulating and carrying out plans.
Since, according to current ethical reflection, the concept of being a person is the concept not of belonging to a certain species but of being endowed with certain mental properties — particularly, self-consciousness — whales turn out to be nonhuman persons, thus confirming the moral soundness of both the trend in international law and the intuitive popular view.
Why, then, hasn’t the principle of whales’ entitlement to life already been agreed? Because of the continuous, subterranean work of a few governments (governments, not nations, as there is also opposition to whaling in the whaling countries). In fact, the IWC is even considering lifting the moratorium, agreed in 1986, thereby allowing commercial hunts. That is, with the acquiescence of some “anti-whaling” governments, a few pressure groups may block a process that would be almost universally welcomed.
And what are the grounds for doing it? First, the claim that the depleted species of whales are flourishing again — a claim that, apart from being contested, misses the point, which is now about moral protection, not conservation of harvestable resources. Second, a claim of “cultural exception” based on national cultural practices — an argument about as respectable as that of “cultural exception” advanced by countries that would deny women equal human rights.
In the face of these contentions, one can only wish that people let their voices be heard, insisting that tactical interests are not placed above legal and moral progress. Questions have been raised in the past about the IWC’s role, and proposals were made calling for the UN to assume jurisdiction. This idea has become more relevant today. An institution created with the goal of regulating exploitation is no longer the best organization to deal with whale protection. If, as humanity comes to recognize the moral standing of whales, the IWC fails to act accordingly, the time may be ripe to remove this task from its hands.
Paola Cavalieri is co-editor with Peter Singer of The Great Ape Project and author of The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights.
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