Pricing Whales

Is it a good idea, or a bad idea, for whale advocates to put their money where their mouths are?

From Wired: A Market Proposal for Saving Whales

Despite the best efforts of activists, more whales are killed now than two decades ago. To people who think killing the majestic creatures is wrong, it’s a tragic state of affairs — but perhaps markets could sort it out.

That’s the premise of a controversial proposal floated Jan. 11 in the high-profile journal Nature. Hunters could buy the right to kill whales. Conservationists could pay to save them….

The idea has something to be said for it. After all, it’s easy to say you care about saving some species, but when someone else’s livelihood depends on harvesting that species, you need to have more than a preference that they stop. And besides, there’s the chance that this scheme just might work where other tactics have failed.

(People who don’t think of whales as food may wonder why this topic fits the mandate of the Food Ethics Blog. But the purpose of most modern whaling is in fact to acquire whale meat.)

But at least 3 problems occur to me:

1. As the Wired article points out, one fundamental problem has to do with the moral status of whales. If whales are as sentient as many people think they are, then creating a market in them is akin to creating a market in humans — and hence seriously morally problematic.

2. Moral status of whales aside, the scheme might set a dangerous precedent. Anyone wanting to squeeze money out of activists could in theory start hunting the activist’s favourite critter, and insist on being paid to stop.

3. There’s a worry about the relative bargaining power of the whale hunters and the activists. If whalers are currently making $20 million / year, activists might say “sure, we can match that.” But what’s then to stop whalers from asking for $25 million next year?

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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4 Responses to Pricing Whales

  1. This sounds like a very very problematic idea. Of course for many anti-whalers the personhood of whales rules out the possibility of treating them like resources. On the other hand there is a history within the human and animal rights movement of buying someones freedom, whether it was abolitionist at a slave auction or modern day animal rights activists going to certain animal auctions, so it may not be totally objectionable. Though I certainly have philosophical issues with it and am skeptical of the practicality.

    One part I have a problem with is that for such a scheme to work their must be a default owner of hunting rights on whales, without international agreement it would just result in the IWC merely CLAIMING ownership while other deny it. Of course depending on your view of their moral status it may not be ethically possible to grant legitimate ownership or stewardship to the IWC.

    It also seems that this scheme would give nations such as Japan and Iceland who hunt on a commercial scale much great advantage over small indigenous communities. Basically it will drastically affect indigenous community’s who rely on whale meat for sustenance far before it will affect the commercial whalers. I would also wonder if Japan would still be allowed to get away with hunting for scientific purposes and avoid the same regulations as more openly honest commercial whalers. Basically would their be a scientific loophole?

    I definitely agree with point #2 on your list, it reminds me of the guy who held a rabbits life ransom for money on a website (setting aside whether it was a hoax). Its a very real possibility.
    It seems there are two area that could be focused on for those who wish to stop whaling. First directly intervene in the hunting. If certain governments wanted to prevent most whaling they already have the means to do so. Australia has the military capacity to physically bar Japanese ships from entering their hunting grounds in the Southern Ocean if they wish to and feel they have a justification or territorial claim.

    Second, focus on the market for whale meat and how to reach it and affect opinions there. If the proposed scheme created an even more limited market for whale meat then it will just drive up the price and prestige of whale meat and make it harder for animal rights groups to pay these higher prices to save the whale.

    • Yeah, there are problems for sure. I mean, it’s initially attractive, from a purely instrumental point of view: if the money activist groups are spending is already more than hunters are earning, it sounds like a win-win (except for the ad agencies and others who are benefiting from the current spending by activist groups). But I too am skeptical about the practicalities.

      It’s an interesting twist, though, on the tragedy of the commons — the problem that arises when no one clearly owns a resource.

      • I don’t think the tragedy of the commons is quite so simple. Even with private property, short sightedness or selfishness can ruin it. Some may only see incentive to keep a resource sustainable and profitable during their lifetime, not caring if a species goes extinct or a resource is used up a few years after they die. Or dwindling numbers of a species or amount of a resource will increase its profitability to the point that it will be hard to resist exploiting it. Privately owned land for example is often horribly mismanaged in terms of environmental and non-human impact. We cant rely just on individual human interest to align with the interest of other species based on market principles or with long term interests of society, far to often the interest are in conflict not agreement.

      • Yes, the problems you refer to with regard to private property are real problems, but they’re quite separate from the TOC. The TOC is specifically about non-private property. The idea is that, with private property, people at least have *some* incentive to conserve. Not always the case, of course.

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