Whales, Whaling, and Humanity

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Whales, Whaling, and Humanity

By Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

In Morocco in late June 2010, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) decided to uphold its international moratorium on commercial whaling. That decision just might be a litmus test for the evolution and maturity of humankind. Lifting the ban would have been a symbolic reminder that we remain mired in a way of thinking that sees other sentient animals merely as resources for humans to treat as we please-a recapitulation of an arcane might-makes-right mindset that justified colonialism and slavery, the subjugation of women, and the denial of civil rights. If we've come anywhere since the moratorium was enacted, the ban will be upheld.

I say "symbolic," because even with the ban on whaling still in place, whales continue to be harpooned at sea. Ever since the moratorium was passed in 1986, Japan, Norway and Iceland have flouted it. As if to rub brine in that wound, Japan has used the IWC's lame "scientific whaling" loophole, claiming that the fifteen hundred or so whales it slaughters each year-including species on the verge of extinction-are vital for better understanding them. This would be laughable if the results weren't so tragic. It's like saying we need to starve people to find out why they need food.

But I'm not arguing that we should save whales because they're endangered. If that were the only basis for protecting a species, then a strong case could be made for large-scale culling of the swollen human population. Heaven forbid, and rightly so!

So why should we protect whales? (Actually, they don't need anything from us, so the question is more accurately: Why should we leave them alone?) Numerous arguments can be made for and against our letting whales be. But there is only one fact that really matters: whales are sentient. We shouldn't harm or kill whales because it causes them pain and suffering, and because their lives matter to them.

Doubters may cry out for evidence. Okay. Cetaceans (members of the whale and dolphin family) have culture, as reflected by distinct behaviors and communication dialects between populations. They plan, and have devised

such as corralling fishes in a circular veil of bubble rings, or ambushing them onto a shoreline. Whales can be virtuous, such as the babysitting behavior of sperm whale "nannies" who watch over youngsters while mothers dive deep to forage, or the well-documented rescues of beached whales and drowning humans by dolphins.

And what clearer demonstration that a whale values her life can there be than a display of gratitude for our having spared it? When a female humpback whale was cut free from crab trap ropes in which she'd become entangled in December 2005, she didn't just swim away. She methodically approached and nuzzled each diver.

Sentience is the bedrock of ethics. Moral systems exist because others have interests. Chief amongst those interests are the desire to stay alive and the avoidance of pain and suffering.

Can we really doubt that a while's pain is comparable to our own? Is there any question that it hurts a whale, a lot, to have a harpoon pierce deep into his or her body and explode there? Can we deny that such a creature-who can live more than 200 years-wants to live and doesn't want to die in agony? Is there really a case to be made that a gustatory luxury or a bit of profit for a few members of one species (ours) justifies torture and genocide of another?

Our marvelous brains, hands and technology certainly give us the power to do with others as we please. But this doesn't give us license to run roughshod across the earth. Not any more. Might-makes-right is a primitive credo and a moral failure. Humanity has already shown it can make enormous moral strides forward in our treatment of other humans. It's time to apply the same principle to all sentient beings. Morocco is as good a starting point as any.