Wandering amongst the remains of behemoths, while in the distance, sledge dogs miserly quarrel over rich pickings of blubber can seem like a rather macabre sight. But it also gives time for contemplation. We often forget, that some aspects of morality are arguably not universal. There are things that are morally wrong, irrespective of time or culture- such as causing deliberate harm to another individual or property. Then there are other aspects of morality such as forgoing the sacrifice of animals, which only comes as a luxury, and most often in an urban setting.
When taking whale hunting for instance, I find the Japanese taste for whale in an ‘urbanised modern’ society somewhat unnecessary and the hunting of whales for consumption behind the masquerade of scientific research to be morally wrong. It is the slaughter of highly sentient animals to supply a delicacy, rather than necessary nourishment. But when certain animal rights organisations sometimes vilify the summer whale hunts of the Greenlandic Tunumiit, the annual Faroese 'grind' or the occasional Lamelara sperm whale hunts along the same lines, I find that wrong and irresponsible too. As I have come to understand through interactions during my travels, these communities do not hunt because of a zoosadistic blood lust as it is often portrayed, or purely to preserve traditions which some say, 'have no place in the modern world'. Instead they hunt whales because of necessity, and the lack of cultivatable land. In reality, it is a more wholesome way of life, living off the land and the ocean that surrounds them, instead of shipping food using polluting aviation fuel from half a world away. Then, when comparing components of a vegan salad in a Northern European cafe and what a traditional Greenlandic family lays out for dinner, now becomes somewhat debatable in regard to what is more ethically sourced. We are not talking about factory farming here, where animals are made to endure cruelty all through their lives that no living thing should ever endure. Furthermore, studies show how soy and palm olive plantations to meet increasing global demands have caused major deforestation, species endangerment and internal displacement of indigenous communities in the past few decades. But that’s a whole different can of worms to open now, and this is in no way an argument against vegetarianism!
Of course the scene of the sea turning red with blood or the struggle of a gentle giant before it takes its last breath is a disturbing sight; so would be the scenes from inside the abattoir where the most organic and ‘happy’ free-range cows meet their end- the one bad day of their lives. The less accustomed to it we are, and the less we know where our food comes from, as is the case in most modern urban societies, the more perturbing we would find it. I have no problem with trying out a species that is not endangered and that has been killed with efforts to minimise pain, within the capabilities of the hunter or the slaughterer. Even when a community out of necessity have to hunt an endangered species, I cannot judge them in the absence of alternatives; but I would never try it myself, as I would only be doing so out of curiosity rather than necessity. To be driven by such irresponsible curiosity would be immoral and of bad principle.
Ultimately it is a question of necessity. Furs continues to line designer handbags and trinkets, though this is a trade that is not necessary in the vast majority of the communities today, like how whale meat is only a delicacy in modern urban Japan and not a necessary form of nutrition. Any form of meat can be considered unnecessary in many societies today. In the contrary, a Faroese grind, a Greenlandic or Lamelara whale hunt can be sustainable, and most importantly sometimes is necessary. Although taking the life of another being can never be labelled as 'humane', a more merciful death could be facilitated. With time it will also come to a stop- not primarily because of endangerment fears of the whales, but more so because of the risk to the consumers themselves due to the damage the industrialised, urbanised and more ‘developed’ societies who are often the greatest critics of these distant communities, are causing to the planet we all share, leading to increased levels of mercury and other pollutants in marine meat for instance.
As societies change certain moral values would change with it, often for the better. In the last century many societies have learnt to be more accepting of different individuals, to treat genders equally and to be kinder to animals; and most often, not because of religious morality or enforced laws. It is a natural part in the evolution of societies, and some vehemently resist these changes arguing on the grounds of tradition, culture and religion. But ultimately they are inevitable. I believe at the same time we cannot be militant in imposing these values onto others. It doesn’t make them morally inferior or unfledged, as certain aspects of morality are only products of circumstances and experiences.