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Question 93: May islanders using primitive methods slaughter whales for food?

We live on an island in Oceania. Each year since colonial times when whales come near, people here have herded some of them into our small harbor and slaughtered them. These whales are not leviathans, but one of the smaller species. Still, using only simple tools, we cannot do the work gently and efficiently. The slaughter is messy and rather wasteful.

Nobody here ever had any moral qualms about the annual whale kill. The meat always has been an important part of our diet. Nobody would starve without it, but people here are not wealthy, and we would miss it.

Lately, however, outsiders have objected to our whale kill, using several arguments. First, they say it is cruel to slaughter any animal by cutting it apart alive, as we do the whales. Second, they point out that we keep much less of each animal than professional whalers do, and accuse us of outrageous waste. Third, they claim that, with human populations increasing, the unnecessary killing of these animals soon will endanger the species, if it has not already done so, and so is unfair to future generations.

What do you think of these arguments?


This question concerns the application both of the norm forbidding cruelty to animals and of the Golden Rule. The annual whale kill is not cruel and wasteful if the islanders cannot reasonably obtain the tools required to carry it out more gently and efficiently. The whale kill is unfair if islanders, to obtain its benefits, definitely would not accept for themselves the sorts of harm it does to outsiders; it is unfair to future generations if it is likely to contribute to extinguishing the species. If the annual whale kill is not unfair to anyone and it is not feasible for the islanders to obtain better tools, they may continue conducting it as they have.

The reply could be along the following lines:

You say nothing about the lawfulness of the annual whale kill. If applicable laws prohibit it, they should be presumed just, and, not needing the whale meat for an adequate diet, you islanders almost certainly should obey them. But in the remainder of this reply, I shall assume that those participating in the whale kill do nothing against the law.

You say outsiders accuse you of great waste because you keep less of each whale than the professionals do. Perhaps you could quite easily take and use more of the animal, even with the tools you have, to meet others’ needs, if not your own. If you could, you of course should, but I shall assume in what follows that you are doing the best you can with the tools you have.

Some people today would condemn you on the ground that everyone should practice vegetarianism. However, Christians always have held that animals may be used for food, provided the meat contributes to a healthful and temperate diet.293 Of course, in the Old Testament, certain kinds of animals were considered unclean, but the New Testament makes it clear that there is nothing inherently wrong in eating any kind of meat (see Acts 10.10–16, 11.2–10, 15.6–20).

Since the whale kill provides a legitimate and important part of your diet, it serves the fundamental human good of health. Moreover, if you were a group of native people, your critics probably would regard what you do as a tribal tradition, and many would defend or, at least, tolerate it. But a double standard should not be applied, and, as a communal activity carried on for many years, the annual whale kill is part of your culture, comparable to certain practices of native peoples. Like those folkways, it contributes not only to your standard of living but to the good of social solidarity among those who participate and benefit.

Since those who treat animals cruelly act both against natural sympathy without a good reason to do so—which injures their own character—and irreverently toward God, nobody should treat animals cruelly (see CCC, 2416; LCL, 785–86; q. 92, above). Cruelty, however, is not simply inflicting pain; one surely may, for example, inflict pain on animals, as on fellow humans, for their own good and also in legitimate self-defense. Taking pleasure in an animal’s suffering or negligently accepting it in doing something that is morally wrong on other grounds is cruel, since neither serves any human good. For instance, bearbaiting, which makes sport of an animal’s misery, is cruel; so is accepting the suffering of pets which are kept without good reason and neglected. Moreover, even in doing something in itself good, accepting an animal’s suffering that could be avoided or prevented without undue difficulty is cruel.

You say those conducting the kill cut the whales apart alive—and, it seems, without first stunning them to prevent their suffering. This is cruel if the animals first could be killed or stunned without sacrificing any significant human interest. You also say the slaughter is rather wasteful. Certainly, wasting any material good not only is irreverent toward God but likely to be disadvantageous to those involved or others, and the whale kill is wasteful if carrying it out more efficiently is required by reasonable self-concern or the Golden Rule. Thus, one question raised by your long-standing practice is whether it would be possible and not too difficult to obtain more adequate tools, so that the kill could be done more gently and efficiently.

But how far must you go in trying to obtain better tools? Suppose you were faced with the choice between entirely forgoing the practice and making it more efficient by getting better tools and sharing the expense—a long-term investment that would benefit islanders immediately and for many years to come. If, facing those alternatives, you would choose to obtain better tools, it would be wasteful, it seems to me, to continue the annual whale kill as it has been conducted in the past. Suppose that, without significantly compromising any legitimate interest of the community’s members, you could get the tools needed to kill or stun the animals before cutting them apart. In that case, it would be cruel not to do so. I believe, therefore, that you should look into obtaining more adequate tools. In doing so, you might ask critics of the annual whale kill for constructive advice and, perhaps, financial aid.

The third argument proposed by the outsiders raises a further question: Would you be justified in slaughtering these whales for food even if you did it more gently and efficiently? The answer depends in part on information you have not supplied. The mere fact that human populations are increasing does not imply that you are acting unfairly, and the prospect that this species may be endangered at some future time does not exclude using the whales now, as people use other renewable natural resources. However, the annual whale kill is unfair if islanders, to obtain its benefits, definitely would not accept for themselves the sorts of harm it does to outsiders—for example, if it deprives some people of the food they need to survive or deprives professional whalers of their livelihood. Moreover, if this species of whale becomes actually endangered, and if you could help save the species for the enjoyment and use of future generations by forgoing this food, continuing the slaughter, in my judgment, would be unfair to the people whom you would deprive of these creatures in the future.

Suppose the annual whale kill is neither unfair to anyone now living nor an actual threat to the species, yet there is no feasible way to obtain better tools, or tools can be obtained only to make the slaughter either gentler or more efficient but not both. May you continue conducting it, at least partly, as in the past? Yes. The slaughter inflicts pain on the animals, but that is cruel only if the pain can be avoided without significantly compromising legitimate human interests. And while the slaughter is inefficient, insofar as a large part of each animal goes unused, inefficiency is waste strictly so-called only if reasonable self-concern or fairness requires that one do what is necessary to be more efficient.

What if you must choose between making the slaughter gentler or more efficient? In that case, the animals’ suffering could be mitigated only by compromising some of the slaughter’s benefits to the community, which, as explained, justify accepting that suffering. So, if you must make that choice, you should, in my judgment, make the slaughter more efficient.

293. Despite some contemporary opinion to the contrary, the Catholic Church approves using animals for food, clothing, and medical or scientific research (see CCC, 2417).