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The end justifies the means - but not only for whales

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Wednesday, 18 January 2006

Much of the community is captivated by the David and Goliath battle taking place in the Southern Ocean. Most of us are barracking for the head of the Sea Shepherd Conversation Society Paul Watson, as he tries to prevent the Japanese from fulfilling their brutal self-awarded licence quota of killing 935 minke and 10 fin whales by sinking the “can opener” device attached to his ship, the Farley Mowat, into the hull of the whaling boats.

The calls by the Japanese whaling authority for the Sea Shepherd group to “stop at once their dangerous and criminal actions” have for the most part fallen on deaf ears.

And rightly so. Watson and Greenpeace activists (who recently have come close to being on the pointy end of a Japanese harpoon) should be commended for their actions. Their passion, commitment and bravery are an inspiration to all people who want to make the world a better place.


While much of the world stands shamed for its cruelty towards animals, the killing of whales is particularly distressing. Whales scream in terror as they are being massacred and unlike humans, they aren’t equipped with a consciousness shut off valve that kicks in during the unthinkable levels of pain they experience as their flesh is harpooned and explosives rip through their organs.

The most interesting part of this battle, however, comes in the form of the subtext to the community response to Watson’s actions. Scratch a little bit below the icy waters of the Southern Ocean and you’ll see that it’s not only the whales that should be grateful to Watson. His activities and our response to them have the capacity to teach us profound lessons about the moral fog within which we live and the rationality free zone that occupies much of mainstream moral discourse.

A curious aspect of our response to Watson’s boat-ramming shenanigans is that we are still cheering for him despite the fact his actions constitute an egregious breach of international law and imperil the lives of dozens of people aboard the respective ships.

What is even more illuminating is the lack of criticism by Greens and other civil libertarian groups at Watson’s law-breaking, life-endangering escapades. Greens Senator Bob Brown has proclaimed that the whale protestors are doing the government’s job on whale-killers and has called the Japanese whalers “D-grade butchers masquerading as scientists”.

Civil libertarians are invariably hot off the blocks to denounce any interference with rights, especially those that imperil fundamental interests such as the right to life and liberty. Thus, they loudly condemned the new counter-terrorism laws which provide for control orders and 14 days detention without trial for terrorist suspects and they were appalled at the occasional confession inducing arm-behind-the-back-twisting manoeuvres performed during the sporadic rendition trip by United States forces keen to prevent the next suicide bomb being detonated.

The “end doesn’t justify the means” is the catch-cry that they trumpet most loudly in opposition to incursions of fundamental freedoms that are carried out for the common good. Well, if the end justifies the means for the whales, why doesn’t it justify the means for humans?


The truth is that it does. Failure to realise this is symptomatic of an unremitting deluded self-righteousness that freezes one’s moral compass into an inward position, foreclosing consideration of the thing that matters most - the common good.

The reason that civil libertarians are cheering for the whales has zero to do with the application of universal moral principles and everything to do with emotion - particularly their emotions. The fact their emotional response coincides with the morally correct stance in this case is purely accidental.

The bloodied waters of the Southern Ocean have swelled the compassion gland of civil libertarians to a point where they’ve lost their balance and fallen off their self-erected moral high horse. Hopefully that’s where they will stay and join the rest of us in coming to understand that the end does justify the means. Always has. Always will. Nothing else matters.

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A version of this was first published in the New Zealand Herald on January 17, 2005.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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