Why is Tradition Ever a Defense?

This article exposing the cruel mass murders of dolphin by Japanese fisherman brings a question to mind:

The Japanese government defends the killings for meat as traditional.

Why do we give even a moment’s thought to “tradition” as a defense for such horrific acts?  Many cultures – our own definitely included – have truly evil acts in our traditions.  Ought we allow such evils to continue on the basis of so flimsy a defense as “this happened in our past”?

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15 Responses

  1. Good epistemological question? Tradition, like beauty, is neither virtuous or deplorable in and of itself. Employing tradition as justification for slaughtering magnificent animals weighs in on the deplorable side.

  2. @ WriteChic : What would you define as a “magnificent animal?” Is their an acceptable justification for slaughtering a non-magnificent animal?

    @ Dan: I agree, but one-up you with our own countries’ horrific track-record with animal slaughter. I am wary whenever a foreign country makes the news for doing something almost identical to what the U.S. does all the time.

    • Is there*

    • I meant our track record with humans, but with animals as well. We fortunately do not have a record of slaughtering dolphins like Japan does, though we have done cruel things to other animals as part of our traditions. Why be wary though? Its an opportunity to call out our own shortcomings, and work to fix them.

    • Snarksy. In loosely analytical terms, I mean animals that show an extraordinary capacity for intelligence.

      Acceptable justifications for slaughtering a non-magnificent animal are survival, nutritional purposes, mercy, self-defense, eco-management.

  3. @ Dan: This article in isolation is fine, and even worthy of news attention. It is when we look at it in context of all articles at similar papers on similar topics that I get uncomfortable. I am wary of the false perception arising that the Japanese are evil-Dolphin-killers but that we just don’t do things like that here in the U.S.

    A great way to deflect your own flaws? Point them out on everyone else but yourself. There is no similar mass indignation for the torture of animals, and at times, even the murder of certain people-groups (as you pointed out) in our country.

    • They are getting a ton of press about it, and their justification is lacking. Either “Oh we aren’t doing it for meat, just science” (with whales) and “Its tradition!” (with whales and dolphins specifically).

      I am using it as an example, and asking everyone to think about how they see “tradition” used as a defense to protect otherwise unethical acts. I don’t see anything written here that would spark that false perception.

      This post (as you note) does point out that we do it too, in fact that is the point. I want us to use this to look inward, not just as Americans, but as a part of every tradition with culture.

      As for mass indignation – there surely is. Both locally, and on a world wide scale. Check out how the foreign press writes about us…

  4. @ Dan: A shorter way to get my point across: What makes torturing a dog worse than torturing a pig, other than tradition? And yet, this issue will get very little, if any ink, from any media outlet in the near future, even while we collectively cluck at the Japanese and their horrific Dolphin murder.

  5. @WriteChic: Does an unintelligent being have a categorically lesser right to their own life than an intelligent one?

    I am not specifically arguing that we should never kill animals. But I am curious how we can rank intelligence in species’ we don’t fully understand and comfortably put them in a hierarchy of who does and does not matter. Is their a magnificent animal continuum, or merely a cut-of point? How does this ranking system work, exactly?

    • Snarksy. I appreciate your conscientiousness. Obviously we evolved killing and eating meat. Generally, civilization developed such that meat consumption became industry, integral in living. From a rational and pragmatic perspective, cattle, poultry, fish (mollusks et al.), hogs, lambs are all fine.

      Pragmatically, the consumption of animals like whales is not fine because they’re endangered. Rationally, the interest exists not to drive a species to extinction for a lot of reasons.

      Human beings do most things without fully anticipating the consequences of their behavior. In fact, what can be done with full consequences anticipated? (I think very little.)

      So you ask how we can rank intelligence in species. I fully acknowledge the absurdity of a cut-off. Much of it has been decided for us via tradition. I would kill a tapeworm with glee…and a roach if one dared to venture into my home. (I wonder if the tapeworm and common house roach lovers have been selected for extinction because nature has decided a lack of aversion to disease makes a human unfit for living? 😉 )

      What I know through education and science is that behavior and types of brains correlate to animal intelligence. Dolphins, whales, monkeys, apes have been identified as intelligent. I agree with the moral perspective that you need a really strong reason to harm an intelligent creature.

      But ask me to draw a line? I cannot.

      • Snarksy, this is evolving into an entirely different discussion – on the morality of treatment of animals and the important of intelligence to animal rights. I understand your concerns, and they would make for a good new post.

        However this post is simply concerned with the use of tradition explicitly to defend otherwise unethical acts. Religion provides some good examples: Circumcision for one. Or sex slaves to
        Yellama (Devadasi). And on it goes. The question is in general, why do humans seem primed to give tradition moral weight?

  6. 😀 Hi, Dan,

    The question is in general, why do humans seem primed to give tradition moral weight?

    I think one answer is that it is tradition to give tradition moral weight.

    Some tradition deserves props. Rigid sexual mores kept social order, kept people healthy. Oral traditions of storytelling gives us an anthropological idea of who we are, what we’ve been. Tradition has merit in the preservation of a cultural identity.

    But dolphin slaughters to honor the tradition of killing for meat should be countered obviously. My position is a person (a nation in this case) needs a really strong reason for killing intelligent creatures and “this is what we do and have always done” falls miserably short.”

    • Hahaha, it is tradition to give tradition moral weight.

      I think tradition can get historical props, but in the modern world we really need to ask ourselves in all cases – “Ok now we know better, what next?”.

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