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  • The issue of whaling arouses strong emotions – and there is nothing wrong with emotions in ethics. After all, part of being human is to feel strongly about things.

    Indeed, whether or not it is unethical, it is surely inappropriate, even inhuman, not to feel anger or revulsion at detailed accounts of torture, cruelty or wanton callousness.

    Ethical analysis

    At the same time, an emotional response to an ethical issue, such as the question of the acceptability of whaling, benefits from being accompanied by ethical analysis. A bioethicist would want to pay serious attention both to specific aspects of the biology of the situation and to general ethical considerations.

    How to explore the ethics of whaling?

    There is no single all-purpose way of conducting an ethical enquiry, just as there is no single all-purpose way of painting, deriving a mathematical proof or designing an artefact. Several different approaches are outlined below.

    Socratic method

    One could, for example, start from the premise ‘Whaling is morally wrong’ and then attempt alternately to defend and to critique the premise. This is sometimes referred to as the Socratic method as it embodies the approach used by Socrates who was famed for taking the opposite line to his opponent, whatever the opponent argued. The idea is that a rigorous cross-examination enables the truth to be revealed. Much the same approach is used in law courts.

    Ethical frameworks

    Another approach would be explicitly to conduct the analysis within the five frameworks of consequentialism/utilitarianism, autonomy, rights and responsibilities, virtue ethics and multiple perspectives.

    Find out more in the article Frameworks for ethical analysis.

    In a teaching situation, with a class that has some experience at undertaking bioethical analyses, there can be value in encouraging different groups within the class to try different approaches to the examination of the issue. This can stop ethical analysis seeming like a routine chore and enable fresh perspectives to be brought to bear.

    Examining the big issues

    An alternative approach to ethical analysis is outlined below, and consists of asking a lot of questions about relevant issues.

    For whaling, the big issues include suffering, conservation and human rights. There may be others but these are enough to be starting with.


    It is clear that we need to know about the extent to which whaling causes suffering. Relevant questions might include:

    • How long does it take a whale, once harpooned, to lose consciousness (i.e. to no longer be capable of feeling pain)?
    • What proportion of whales who are harpooned are not killed (so might suffer for much longer)?
    • Do whales show any sign of fear?
    • Is there any evidence from captive whales/dolphins that can help answer such questions?
    • What do we know about the anatomy/neurophysiology of whales that is relevant?
    • Are there any material differences between different species of whales in any regard?


    Relevant questions might include:

    • How endangered are whales?
    • What material differences are there between different whale species in this regard?
    • What effects have changes in whale numbers over the last hundred years or so had on other components of the ecosystem (e.g. changes in krill numbers on the numbers of other marine animals)?

    Human rights

    Relevant questions might include:

    • How embedded is whaling in certain cultures?
    • What effect has the cessation/reduction of whaling had on certain aboriginal peoples who have traditionally hunted whales?
    • Does whale hunting enable any virtues?
    • What are the economic consequences of whaling?


    It is rare for a single person, or even a group of people, alone to produce a definitive ethical analysis of a biological issue. In the case of whaling, one would want to consult more widely. This could be done by researching what has already been written on the issue, conducting surveys (for example by written questionnaire or telephone interview) and running focus groups. Particular care would need to be paid to obtaining the views of those with relevant interests who are ‘hard to reach’ – for instance aboriginal peoples.

    Of course, the hardest group to ‘reach’ in this case are the whales. The best proxy might be human experts on whaling, namely those in favour of it and who have first hand experience (notably whalers), those who are against it (for example members of certain conservation and animal rights organisations) and those who may have no strongly expressed view but know a lot about the issue at hand (for example experts in animal welfare and marine biology).

    Written by Professor Michael Reiss, Institute of Education, University of London.

      Published 5 June 2008 Referencing Hub articles
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