Harpooned by hypocrisy

The change in public opinion about whaling has been dramatic. Thirty years ago Australian vessels would hunt sperm whales with the government's blessing - but just two days ago an Australian customs ship, in Antarctic waters to video Japanese whaling activities, played a key role in winning the freedom of two anti-whaling activists. The hostage crisis began when they boarded a Japanese harpoon boat on Tuesday. Because Paul Watson, the leader of the conservation group Sea Shepherd, refused to cease his disruption of the whaling fleet, the Japanese refused to return the activists. But the stalemate was broken two days later when the Australian ship agreed to accept, and transfer, them.

In 1977 the Australian government, in the face of Greenpeace protests, appointed the retired judge Sydney Frost 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: whaling should stop not because whales are endangered, but because they are social mammals with big brains, capable of enjoying life and feeling pain - not only physical pain, but distress at the loss of group members.

Whales cannot be humanely killed: they are too large - even with explosive harpoons it is difficult to hit the right spot. And because whalers are reluctant to use large amounts of explosive, which would destroy valuable oil or flesh, harpooned whales typically die slowly and painfully. If there were some life-or-death need that humans could meet only by killing whales, perhaps the ethical case could be countered. But everything we get from whales can be obtained without cruelty elsewhere. Thus, whaling is unethical.

Frost agreed that the methods were inhumane, remarking on "the real possibility that we are dealing with a creature which has a remarkably developed brain and a high degree of intelligence". Malcolm Fraser's conservative government accepted his recommendation that whaling be stopped, and Australia soon became an anti-whaling nation.

While Japan has suspended its plan to kill humpback whales, its whaling fleet will still kill a thousand whales, mostly smaller minkes. Japan justifies this as "research" - but the research seems to be aimed at building a scientific case for commercial whaling; so, if whaling is unethical, then the research is both unnecessary and unethical.

The Japanese say that he discussion of whaling should be carried out on the basis of evidence, without "emotion". They think that humpback numbers have increased sufficiently for the killing of 50 to pose no danger to the species. On this narrow point, they might be right. But no amount of science can tell us whether or not to kill whales. Indeed, the desire to kill whales is no less motivated by "emotion" than opposition to it. Eating whales is not necessary for health or nutrition; it is a tradition some Japanese are emotionally attached to.

They have one argument that is not easily dismissed. They claim that western countries are just trying to impose their cultural beliefs on the Japanese. The best response to this argument is that the wrongness of causing needless suffering to sentient beings is not culturally specific. (It is, for instance, a precept of Japanese Buddhism.)

But western nations are in a weak position to make this response, because they inflict so much unnecessary suffering on animals - through culling (the Australian slaughter of kangaroos), hunting and factory farms. The west will have little defence against the charge of cultural bias until it addresses needless animal suffering in its own back yard.

Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of Animal Liberation and, with Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat.