Saving those whales with good hard sense

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Tue, 2006-01-31 22:23

There's nothing like an argument about whales to make everyone lose their marbles.

One local blogger, for example, has posted various thoughts on morality and animal rights, and on her former membership of Greenpeace, and how that pertains to Greenpeace's opposition to the Japanese whalers presently in the South Seas. 'Go Greenpeace' she says:'Stop the hand-wringing and break out those guns.' (I paraphrase, of course) Unfortunately, she offers no argument for her position, just simple assertion and a quote from Jeremy Bentham, who was himself not even in favour of rights for human beings ("nonsense on stilts" is what the stupid man called the idea).

The simplest short explanation why animals don't have rights is that they don't understand them -- as PJ O'Rourke pointed out you can tell the lion all you like that it's wrong, but he's still going to rip the guts right out of Bambi. And what do you do when that happens? If Bambi has rights, then you have to throw the lion in jail And if animals really do have rights, what happens when you tuck into Daisy the cow? Should you get thrown in jail with the lion? Who's going to tell the lion about your rights?

Fact is, and much as we may wish it otherwise, rights pertain not to animals, but to species that use their conceptual faculty to produce and to plan long range, and who need the protection of law to do so. As far as is presently known, ours is the only species that does so; if whales or any other species want their rights recognised, then let them show up in court and argue for them. It's not like whales don't talk to each other enough -- all that bloody singing that they do all day.

No, much as we may wish it otherwise, animals have rights only by virtue of our ownership over them -- kill my cat and I'll see you in court (and probably outside as well). But kill a stray cat, and all we can do is judge you by what you've done. How we treat animals is one way to judge a person. And maybe, in all the moral indignation about the whales, we forget that New Zealanders ourselves aren't too bad at slaughtering animals for food (as I pointed out the other day). Writing in The Dominion however, former MP Stephen Franks reminds us:

We are lathered in moral indignation about whaling. Yet as a nation we live off the proceeds of slaughtering up to 40 million cuddly young animals a year. Japanese think lambs are impossibly cute.

The Green Party blob objects that Franks "has missed the point. New Zealand has a huge industry in farming sheep. As we all know sheep are generally bred for either their wool or their meat. They are not an endangered animal. Whales on the other hand are."

There are two responses to make here. Minke whales, which the Japanese are hunting, are not endangered. Numbers in the Southern Ocean are in dispute, and are probably not as many as the 760,000 claimed in 1990, but even if much less that is not the sort of order of magnitude one sees if a species is dying out.

But some whales are endangered. True. The second point to make is that perhaps if whales were farmed, they wouldn't be so endangered. I've mentioned this point here many times (just check out some of my posts on Conservation) but developing a property right in whales is perhaps the best way to ensure they don't die out. As a headline describing the work of conservationist and crocodile farmer Dr Graham Webb once summarised: "Eat Them. Skin Them. Save Them." Or, as you might say if you're a Kaikoura whale tourism operator, 'Watch Them, Photograph Them & Save Them.' Pay your money and make your choice, and all that's needed then is a legal and a technological breakthrough, and a change in attitude.

As I say above, there is no case for protection of animals on the basis of their rights, but there is a strong case to be made for the protection of animals based on human rights -- specifically on the real, human property rights of ownership. As Dr Graham Webb has long argued, "The proposition that wildlife conservation can sometimes be enhanced through allowing and even promoting the harvesting of wildlife is a sensitive issue," but it is a necessary one to consider.

There is a very good reason that cows and lambs are not endangered, but kiwis, kakapo and some species of whale are: the value of the former is recognised and protected in law, and that protection is in favour of those to whom the animals are a real tangible value, and who own them. The notion of the 'intrinsic value' of animals is not required since real value is protected, and the bogus notion of 'animal rights' is not needed as real, human property rights are protected. As that headline says, 'Eat Them, Skin Them, Save Them.'

Graham Webb's discussion of the proposition makes the point that recognising a property right in animals makes for 'sustainable conservation' [PDF download]:

...An increasing body of conservationists believe local people should not be treated as the enemy of conservation (Hutton and Dickson 2000). They should be active partners, at the frontline. To achieve and sustain this, they need to receive tangible, sustainable benefits for their efforts. In most cases, the only sustainable way of providing those benefits is through using wildlife for economic gain. That is, conservation through sustainable use (CSU).

Graham's own crocodile park outside Darwin is a great example of one way this can work. The private conservation projects here in NZ and the various Southern African private wildlife parks are other good examples of private 'sustainable conservation' that succeed by eschewing vague ideas of non-existent 'intrinsic values' or of animal rights or of simply wishing we'd all just be nice to God's creatures , and instead by answering the question, "Of value to whom, and for what?" and then proceeding to protect the property rights of those to whom there is a recognised right and a clear value.

And if it's just whales you want to protect, then Zen Tiger has yet another solution. Like Ruth, he's on the side of the whales too, only unlike Ruth he's come up with a viable plan: Eat more McDonalds:

...the last hope for the Whales is MacDonald's. Their plan is to substitute the demand for whale meat with demand for a Big Mac. By all accounts, Japanese youth are increasingly turning away from Whale to Big Macs, so it seems to be working.

We need to speed the process. I suggest two more initiatives:

Read on here to find out how eating more cows can help save the whales.

Linked Articles:
Cue Card Libertarianism - Rights
Opening a whole new can of whales - Not PC
Barbed wire for Kaikoura's whales - Not PC
Eat Them. Skin Them. Save Them.
PDF] Conservation and sustainable use of wildlife — an evolving concept - Dr Graham Webb
My secret flaw - Zen Tiger
More Conservation from Not PC

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