Abney Turner: Ceta-Ethics: The Symbol of the Whale and Its Ethical History

This summer, I am conducting a study on the history of speciesist and anthropocentric thought by exploring the history of whale symbology and corresponding whaling practices in the United States. I hypothesize that our treatment of nonhuman animals depends in large part on the symbolic narratives we assign to different species and the ways in which these narratives either de-individuate (commodify) or anthropomorphize the nonhuman animal. The more human-like these narrative symbols are, the more moral consideration we grant to the species they represent. These symbols and narratives are especially apparent in our relationship to whales, animals that have been conspicuously symbolized throughout history—as formidable sea monsters, economic commodities, endangered species, or charismatic and sentient individuals. The whale, I suggest, provides a remarkably broad spectrum of symbolization and therefore illuminates the wide range of corresponding degrees of moral consideration with which humans have interacted with whales and—by extension—with animalkind. 

Over the past few weeks, I have been reviewing philosophy by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Derrida to understand the roles of their work in the anthropocentric history of Western philosophy. It is from these different yet prominent understandings of the human-animal divide and conceptions of animality that I will be able to contextualize whaling history within different intellectual frameworks.

I will visit the New Bedford whaling archives in early July to document the ways the whale was symbolized, characterized, and discussed throughout the rise and fall of the whaling industry in the United States. My question will be: What does the history of whaling tell us about the way in which the philosophical history of human-animal relations interacts with anthropological symbology to produce real historical consequences regarding our treatment of other beings? I will pore over logbooks, journals, photographs, and artwork, categorizing these sources into different symbolic narratives: the whale as a commodity, the whale as prey, the whale as an endangered species, and the whale as a sentient individual (and maybe even the more radical “whales as persons”). Perhaps I will find new and unexpected symbols. I expect to locate the different ways of symbolizing the whale that lie within (or perhaps challenge entirely) this anthropocentric map of thought.