Those are not valid defences

I’m rather fond of Japan. It’s a beautiful country with so many unique features, including its cuisine, architecture, writing, language and culture. Next month, I will even be heading to Japan to interview for a PhD position. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with all aspects of Japanese culture, nor does it excuse them from poorly-argued defences such as have recently been offered to the world in regards to the annual Taiji dolphin hunt.

The controversy was reignited this year by a tweet sent by the US ambassador to Japan. CNN covers the story here and includes some defences offered by the Japanese. There is also an interview with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe where he responds to the outcry. The interview seems to cover other topics as well and a relevant excerpt can be seen here, although I am not sure where the full interview is. The points I address come from both CNN articles and a short News24 piece.

The dolphin fishing that takes place in Taiji town is an ancient fishing practice deeply rooted in their culture and their practices and supports their livelihoods. We hope you will understand this.

In every country and region, there are practices and ways of living and culture that have been handed down from ancestors. Naturally, I feel that these should be respected.

That traditions should be respected and protected is quite a common view, especially in groups that are linked strongly to their culture. It often makes an appearance in the South African political discourse as well, where discussions centre around traditional leaders and setting up traditional courts. These discussions are important when the ideas of the traditional governance can conflict with the constitution and we are paying millions of Rands to people that are no better than anyone else.

In some cases, people’s traditions and cultures should be respected and appreciated. The world would be impoverished if we lost all the different languages, writing systems and cultures that we currently share. They make it interesting and fun. So yes, when in Japan we should take off our shoes when entering someone else’s house and we shouldn’t leave our chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. However, there are also traditions around the world that are abusive, such as India’s caste system and the patriarchal values of some traditional African societies. A recent report told of a village council in India ordering the gang rape of a woman. I’m not sure whether such punishments are common traditionally but such councils are part of the village culture yet we, hopefully, will not respect them ordering a gang rape.

Cultures and traditions formed a long time ago when we neither had as good of an understanding of the world nor ethics as we have today. It is necessary to look at cultural practices and examine whether they are harmful, or acceptable, in the modern world or not. Cultural practices do not get a pass or respect merely because they are traditions; they only get respect when they are respectable practices. Some may have been respectable in the past but no longer. We are not living in the past and we can’t judge today’s actions according to yesterday’s values.

Defenders of the hunt say it is a tradition and point out that the animals it targets are not endangered, a position echoed by the Japanese government.

They say Western objections are hypocritical and ignore the vastly larger number of cows, pigs and sheep butchered to satisfy demand elsewhere.

The first point here is irrelevant. The problem isn’t that dolphins are endangered or that there’s a risk of losing them but that they are being killed at all. This a conflict of world views. The Japanese view dolphins, and I imagine most other non-human animals, as objects that they can use; “very important water resources” as one official put it. The reality is that dolphins, and other animals, do not exist for our use any more than we exist for their use. This is what we get from more modern ethical and scientific sources. I will admit that it is not without controversy but, in the West at least, most people seem to recognise that animals have intrinsic ethical importance, although how that affects our actions varies wildly. Last year, I blogged about India recognising dolphins, not as resources but as non-human persons. That’s the direction we are moving in.

The second point is important because, on that matter, the Japanese are spot on. Western objections are hypocritical. What the Japanese are doing is no worse than what is done on farms throughout the world. We know better and when the sort of suffering that farm animals undergo is brought to the public’s knowledge they are shocked. The outcry is even worse if anything similar is done to an animal considered a pet. We are quick to anger when people chain their dogs up all day or leave them locked in a garden without exercise but even those cases are better conditions than what millions of farm animals experience. People are happy to condemn animal abuse until it demands changing their own habits. When it comes to eating meat, most people awkwardly try to stay ignorant while refusing to make a change that will have real meaning.

However, as an argument to allow the dolphin killings, it doesn’t stand up. What we consider ethical and unethical is not measured relative to someone else’s actions. If my neighbour is stealing it doesn’t make it right for me to steal. As the old adage says, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” That sort of argument is merely a distraction from the real issue. The Western countries are hypocritical but that doesn’t mean that the Japanese actions are any less wrong. This same flawed argument is exhibited in this quote:

One user, named @simaya tweeted: “She refers to humanitarian treatment to animals. What about the atomic bombing, Agent Orange and missiles falling on civilians in the Middle East?”

Again, those are irrelevant with respect to the issue under consideration. They may certainly inform our judgements about the moral superiority, or lack thereof, of the United States but they don’t have any bearing on killing dolphins. People can get some things disastrously wrong while still being correct about other things.

The Taiji dolphin hunt is unethical and we should be upset that sentient beings, fully capable of suffering, are doing so unnecessarily. Those condemning the hunt have made mistakes in the past, are making mistakes right now and will no doubt make more in the future. But, we can recognise that nobody is perfect and realise that just because someone has made a mistake before does not mean that everything they do is a mistake. The Japanese explanations offered to the world in defence of the Taiji dolphin hunt fail to stand up to critical scrutiny. Culture and tradition can not excuse a person’s actions. There are certain aspects of Japanese society that are outdated and which need to be revised to bring them in line with current thinking in science and ethics.

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