09 March 2007

Hunting Ethics

A former grad candidate, Kathleen (now Alexis) West was an avid (if novice) hunter who studied hunters like hunters study game. She wanted to study hunters in order to understand hunting. Today, she sent me a link to her YouTube slide show on hunting ethnography,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlCgUJwb_tk. While on YouTube, I could not help but notice that some videos posted next to Alexis's show a very dark side of hunting.

As a teacher, I live for the students like Alexis. They seem to be fewer these days. I would think this is only the grumbling of an old teacher (cf. Aristotle's tirades against the degenerate youth of his day), but the generation Y phenomenon is widely confirmed in both peer-reviewed and popular studies. See http://tribes.tribe.net/swimwiththefish/thread/0f9d2e97-a3cd-4c3e-92cf-911bc7662e91 for an especially brutal indictment. In discussion with a friend, he wrote, "We have raised a generation of kids who will euthanize us the first time that our health care becomes a burden to them."

The news of Alexis' YouTube posting (along with the bad hunting videos posted near it) triggered an email conversation with a colleague at a Texas college about hunting ethics. He is a former hunter who has turned to wildlife photography. I'm not sure if he buys supermarket meat or not.

I used to think I would be a vegetarian if I didn't hunt, since I wanted to be responsible for my own killing. The factory production of most critters just seems too, too wrong. On the bright side, it's fairly easy to buy grass fed beef and free range chickens these days. Increasingly, restaurants designate this and wild salmon etc on menus. Peter Singer et al have helped change the culture for the better in this respect. At any rate, I no longer have this excuse: I could buy flesh and not contribute to immoral treatment of individual animals and the environment.

But the issue of hunting and ethics transcends the market production of flesh. I think it's possible to be a hunter and to embrace an ethic of care as developed by Carol Gilligan and others. My obligations to elk begin with ensuring they have habitat in which to thrive (including predators such as wolves that have coevolved with elk and helped to make them what they are) and end by using their flesh well and honorably. My care ethic runs as much to the species and ecosystem as to the individual per se. For me, it's a balance between Bentham's equation of moral consideration with the ability to suffer/feel pain and the Buddhist truth that life is suffering. Elk will suffer pain from starvation, wolves, etc whether or not I hunt them. To be an elk is to live in that world and to accept such things. Human hunters, like wolves, are among such things.

I can't fully embrace Singer's and other neo-utilitarian arguments that hunting is wrong in all its forms. This stems in part from an ontological argument on my part. Anthropologically, we know that hunting is an evolved dimension of human B/being. As my photographer colleague points out, this evolved connection to nature can be satisfied (at least in part) in other ways--e.g. wildlife watching, photography, etc. Still, hunters come to know nature in ways that photographers do not. Part of this knowing involves the act of killing, caring for the kill, packing out meat, butchering and caring for that meat, and eating it.

The elk has rights and we hunters have obligations. The elk has a right to range freely in unspoiled habitat with appropriate areas for winter range and calving (vs. game farms or canned hunts), a right not to suffer unduly at our hands (hunters that wound animals), a right not to be pursued by machines (hunters on ATVs), and a right to an environment that promotes flourishing (this necessarily means predators such as wolves and lions and bears, OH MY!). Elk are elk, and in our moral obligations we must appreciate that ontological basis just as we accept the ontology of humans as hunters.

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