Our problems remain epistemological.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

A Response to Professor Kevin Jon Heller’s “Norway Murders Freya the Walrus”




Why do I write (nonfiction)? Generally, I write for three reasons. First, I write to make inquiries or to open up wider discussions by posing questions. Second, I write to inform others. And, third, I write to persuade others. Sometimes, I think, others write for different reasons. Here may be one such example.


Perhaps, you read the recent story about Freya, the walrus, who wandered into a Norwegian harbour and took over a pier and some boats (which Freya damaged). A Norwegian government agency, the Directorate of Fisheries, took the view that despite warnings, people were engaging with Freya at too close a distance, and this posed a danger to human life. For this reason, i.e., basically giving priority to human life, the agency ended Freya’s life. The decision to do so was defended by the agency’s director: Frank Bakke-Jensen.


Many with strong views about animal welfare/animal rights condemned the government agency’s move. Professor Heller, a self-described vegetarian, was one such person. He wrote a strongly worded blog post on the subject. See Kevin Jon Heller, ‘Norway Murders Freya the Walrus,’ OpinioJuris (Aug. 15, 2022), <http://opiniojuris.org/2022/08/15/norway-murders-freya-the-walrus/>. The position of animals in our moral framework is contestable. I do not doubt Heller’s sincerity. I take no position whether his view in regard to the agency’s decision was the right one or the wrong one. He puts forward facts and explains his reasoning for criticising the agency’s decision. And he is not alone—he is far from alone. One might criticize Heller’s blog post’s title as extreme and also for misusing the word “murder”—but those criticisms would be petty. People who refrain from using strong language frequently find that their voice is not heard over the din. Generally, his post is squarely within the realm of good (academic) writing.


Still, in his Opinio Juris blog post, Professor Heller also wrote:

Before getting to the substance of [Fisheries Director Frank] Bakke-Jensen’s comments, it’s worth noting that he is a member of Norway’s Conservative Party and a former Minister of Defence. In other words, he’s pretty much the last person you would want making a decision about whether to protect or kill an innocent animal.

What is Heller’s point here? Is Heller expert on modern Norwegian history, government, and parties, including Bakke-Jensen’s “Conservative Party,” and is he telling us that this particular party is weak on animal welfare/animal rights issues? I suppose that is possible, but how is the reader to know that Heller has such expertise? Or is Heller’s point that Bakke-Jensen is a member of a little-c “conservative party,” and he is telling us that all (or, at least, most) such conservative parties—and their members—are weak on animal welfare/animal rights issues? Is that his point?


What is one to make of Heller’s critiquing Bakke-Jensen for being a former Norwegian Minister of Defense? Is Heller’s point that Norwegian ministers of defense are weak on animal welfare/animal rights? Or is his point that all (or, at least, most) ministers of defense world-wide (or in Scandinavia?, or in Western Europe?) are weak on animal welfare/animal rights? Is that his point?


I suppose there could be some empirical basis for Heller’s criticism of Bakke-Jensen for being a Norwegian Conservative Party member and a former minister of defense, but it is noteworthy that he puts nothing forward. Nothing at all. Heller’s views here appear to be little more than personally held and strongly held stereotypes and prejudices.


Another possibility is that Heller really did not mean to make either of those claims—in the sense that he gave them any thought. Rather, his blog post was a primordial scream baring his tortured soul for all—i.e., publicly exhibiting his pain for the death of Freya. If the reputations of members of the Norwegian Conservative Party or of former ministers of defense (in Norway or elsewhere) were injured or if their feelings were hurt, so what—what is their pain compared to his and Freya’s? After all, the real story is Freya’s death, not any mistakes about the attribution of wrongdoing made along the way.


The problem with this latter explanation is that it is essentially self-defeating. If Professor Hellers claims are untrue, if Norwegian Conservative Party members are not weak on animal welfare/animal rights, then his criticising its members in this way is unlikely to win his cause many new supporters and might very well alienate an important electoral and parliamentary constituency when animal welfare/animal rights issues are being decided. The Norwegian Conservative Party was the leading party in the prior government, which sat from 2013 to 2021, and it is now the largest opposition party. Heller may be successfully baring his soul, but I do not think his unsupported criticisms (prejudices?) here have limited the likelihood of another Freya. Indeed, Heller’s blog post might have done just the opposite. Heller might just be alienating the very people needed to change the policies which he objects to.


I suppose there is another possibility. Heller’s blog post is not indicative of prejudice. And, it is not an attempt to persuade. Rather, it is an attempt at self-identification to other members of the Elect. Heller is identifying himself to other similarly minded people as one who deeply cares; he has his heart and mind in the right place. Moreover, he wants other similar thinking individuals to know he is one of them. That would be why his relying on unsupported stereotypes is OK—because he is not trying to change future policy and he is not really trying to persuade those thinking differently from what he thinks.


That might be the explanation. But it is not a good approach for an academic to take. An academic holds a safe perch, and is unlikely to lose his position merely for announcing a few less than thoughtful and less than well-reasoned views. Reliance on stereotypes poses little risk to most academics—particularly if the views are shared by the majority (or even a vocal minority). The problem is that Heller’s less sophisticated students and others will read this writing style and copy it. Students do not enjoy the protections academics enjoy. Prospective (public and private) employers will scan student-applicants social media footprints. Applicants writing in a style like Professor Hellers might bar the applicants from opportunities that they might otherwise have gained. That would be an unfortunate result, which will benefit no one; indeed, it is not even likely to stop the Directorate of Fisheries from killing future Freyas.


So why write this way?



Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘A Response to Professor Kevin Jon Heller’s “Norway Murders Freya the Walrus”,’ New Reform Club (Aug. 16, 2022, 8:22 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/08/a-response-to-professor-kevin-jon.html>;


Kevin Jon Heller said...

Or maybe the Conservative Party in Norway has a long history of promoting policies that are antithetical to the rights of animals, such as making it easier to shoot wolves and opposing a ban on fur farming. But thanks for the entertaining post.

jimd8235 said...

Perhaps the Norwegian Conservative Party places human beings as their primary consideration and concern. After all, human beings in a wealthy society provide the tax revenues which further the concerns of those environmental cultists.

Don’t Buy It said...

Describing a creature as an "innocent animal" is a value judgement that isn't supported by facts. I would argue that animals do not have rights, and that claiming that they do is absurd. One can argue that humans have obligations to behave humanely toward animals, but rights exist within a human moral framework that no animal functions within nor can lay any claim. The rabbit being eaten by the wolf cannot claim its "rights" are being violated, nor does the rabbit caught in a human's snare.

According to how the reports were worded, the animal was a threat to humans largely because humans insisted upon engaging the animal in an unsafe manner. If you want to be upset about something, be upset by that human behavior, because that's where the real problem was.

VeracityID said...

Academics as a class are self absorbed and inhabit a narrow universe where the level of intellectual diversity is vanishingly low. Academics exhibit many of the traits found in fundamentalist religion. They just don't get out much. So I doubt if any of your questions ever even occurred to him.

autothreads said...

Kevin Jon Heller said...
Or maybe the Conservative Party in Norway has a long history of promoting policies that are antithetical to the rights of animals, such as making it easier to shoot wolves and opposing a ban on fur farming. But thanks for the entertaining post.

Professor Heller, please answer the following questions:

Do the animals upon which wolves predate have rights too?

Do wolves' rights include the right to hunt and eat other animals?

Should wolves have more or fewer rights than humans?

SC Mike said...

While I’m far from an authority on the writing style of academics and understand why the professor’s blog post did not earn your seal of approval, I can offer some insights on this matter. Firsts, as to the “cure” for Freya’s habit of using boaters’ private property for her repose, Director Bakke-Jensen’s solution was probably, and sadly, correct. Relocation would not have worked; Freya would probably have returned. Animals do that, and Freya would likely have enjoyed the trip and crowd adulation so much that she’d look forward to another and then another. Norwegian taxpayers would have been stuck with endless transportation bills and only brief interruptions in the destruction of property.

As for Professor Heller’s use of “conservative” in describing the director’s political outlook, he may have been thinking about the typical American conservative, not the Norwegian variant. You know the type, the hunter who can’t stand to see game go to waste and would cry, “Meat’s back on the menu, boys” as he tried to find a large grill, enough charcoal, and the right BBQ sauce to ensure that Freya did not die in vain. Although the tusks are small, they still might make nice knife handles, no?