Sea Shepherd SplinteredJanuary 8, 2010
If a whale is hit by an exploding harpoon near Antarctica and the world doesn’t have a way to witness that, does it make a sound?
Apparently, Peter Singer, Philosopher and Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, responded:
Yes, it has a sound. Because the question about a tree falling in the forest assumed that there are no sentient being able to hear it fall. But whales are sentient beings, and they make sounds that can communicate through the water over a great distance. But even if the whale was alone it can hear the harpoon and feel its own agony, as studies have shown that harpooned whales often die slowly.
I’ve been heavily influenced by Singer, even though I disagree with him pretty strongly (methodologically speaking). Not only does his response to Revkin strike me as having missed the point of the question — the question, in other words, was not technically about whether whales are phenomenologically aware of their own slaughter, but about the extent to which the slaughtering of whales matters politically if no one is around to call attention to the fact that they’re being slaughtered — but it is unapologetically entrenched in his sentientist POV.
On the first point, clearly the question was political. One might also ask the same thing of a protest organization like Sea Shepherd: if they continue doing what they’re doing, and nobody is around to hear, does it make a difference?
Indeed, ever since Sea Shepherd began allowing cameramen on board to shoot Discovery Channel’s Whale Wars, critics of Sea Shepherd have accused Watson of jumping the whale shark. My students, mostly fascinated by the extent to which Sea Shepherd walks a tricky legal line, cannot stop talking about what a pompous self-promoter Watson is. Until the show came on the air, they’d only caught wind of direct action organizations like Sea Shepherd through the twisted missives of the self-parody that is the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
But that’s just the way it should be: Whale wars is a media phenomenon. They’re in the news now, partly because they’ve been very good about getting and holding media attention.
On the second point, it’s true by definition that sentient creatures like whales are aware of pains and pleasures, and so presumably would “hear” the harpoon as it enters their body. But simply because this is true ought not to be the critical factor in determining what’s wrong with harpooning whales. Singer and many like him argue in multiple locations that sentience is what matters morally, presumably because pains are bad and pleasures are good. But many others disagree. So what if whales can feel the harpoon enter their body. Of course they can. Cows and pigs can probably also feel it when they get clobbered with a hatchet. I have to wonder if the awareness of the whale is a strong enough reason to stop harpooning whales. To combat the shortcomings of this view, many try to argue for personhood, just as these scientists argue that dolphins should be viewed as non-human persons. Watson also argues something like this when he claims that whales are more intelligent than humans. This strategy also has its substantial shortcomings. For starters, it’s a relatively confusing, given the commonplace use of the term “person,” and the extent to which this is caught up in moral language.
A slightly better strategy, it seems to me, is to argue that the relevant features of an existing being are salient in a particular circumstance. I guess my attitude is that we can give lots of great reasons why whales ought not to be harpooned and slaughtered, and we don’t need to adopt the strong sentientist or personhood position to make these claims. There are reasons for me to not go mowing down a forest in Alaska, for instance, and those reasons don’t necessarily overlap with the forest’s intelligence, personhood, or ability to feel.
Semester begins on Monday. Should be a bit easier to hit my schedule when I’m in a routine.