Every year as daylight dwindles and trees go bare, debates arise over the morality of hunting. Hunters see the act of stalking and killing deer, ducks, moose and other quarry as humane, necessary and natural, and thus as ethical. Critics respond that hunting is a cruel and useless act that one should be ashamed to carry out.
As a nonhunter, I cannot say anything about what it feels like to shoot or trap an animal. But as a student of philosophy and ethics, I think philosophy can help us clarify, systematize and evaluate the arguments on both sides. And a better sense of the arguments can help us talk to people with whom we disagree.
Three rationales for hunting
One central question is why people choose to hunt. Environmental philosopher Gary Varner identifies three types of hunting: therapeutic, subsistence and sport. Each type is distinguished by the purpose it is meant to serve.
Therapeutic hunting involves intentionally killing wild animals in order to conserve another species or an entire ecosystem. In one example, Project Isabella, conservation groups hired marksmen to eradicate thousands of feral goats from several Galapagos islands between 1997 and 2006. The goats were overgrazing the islands, threatening the survival of endangered Galapagos tortoises and other species.
Subsistence hunting is intentionally killing wild animals to supply nourishment and material resources for humans. Agreements that allow Native American tribes to hunt whales are justified, in part, by the subsistence value the animals have for the people who hunt them.
In contrast, sport hunting refers to intentionally killing wild animals for enjoyment or fulfillment. Hunters who go after deer because they find the experience exhilarating, or because they want antlers to mount on the wall, are sport hunters.
These categories are not mutually exclusive. A hunter who stalks deer because he or she enjoys the experience and wants decorative antlers may also intend to consume the meat, make pants from the hide and help control local deer populations. The distinctions matter because objections to hunting can change depending on the type of hunting.
What bothers people about hunting: Harm, necessity and character
Critics often argue that hunting is immoral because it requires intentionally inflicting harm on innocent creatures. Even people who are not comfortable extending legal rights to beasts should acknowledge that many animals are sentient – that is, they have the capacity to suffer. If it is wrong to inflict unwanted pain and death on a sentient being, then it is wrong to hunt. I call this position “the objection from harm.”
If sound, the objection from harm would require advocates to oppose all three types of hunting, unless it can be shown that greater harm will befall the animal in question if it is not hunted – for example, if it will be doomed to slow winter starvation. Whether a hunter’s goal is a healthy ecosystem, a nutritious dinner or a personally fulfilling experience, the hunted animal experiences the same harm.
But if inflicting unwanted harm is necessarily wrong, then the source of the harm is irrelevant. Logically, anyone who commits to this position should also oppose predation among animals. When a lion kills a gazelle, it causes as much unwanted harm to the gazelle as any hunter would – far more, in fact.
Few people are willing to go this far. Instead, many critics propose what I call the “objection from unnecessary harm”: it is bad when a hunter shoots a lion, but not when a lion mauls a gazelle, because the lion needs to kill to survive.
Today it is hard to argue that human hunting is strictly necessary in the same way that hunting is necessary for animals. The objection from necessary harm holds that hunting is morally permissible only if it is necessary for the hunter’s survival. “Necessary” could refer to nutritional or ecological need, which would provide moral cover for subsistence and therapeutic hunting. But sport hunting, almost by definition, cannot be defended this way.
Sport hunting also is vulnerable to another critique that I call “the objection from character.” This argument holds that an act is contemptible not only because of the harm it produces, but because of what it reveals about the actor. Many observers find the derivation of pleasure from hunting to be morally repugnant.
In 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer found this out after his African trophy hunt resulted in the death of Cecil the lion. Killing Cecil did no significant ecological damage, and even without human intervention, only one in eight male lions survives to adulthood. It would seem that disgust with Palmer was at least as much a reaction to the person he was perceived to be – someone who pays money to kill majestic creatures – as to the harm he had done.
The hunters I know don’t put much stock in “the objection from character.” First, they point out that one can kill without having hunted and hunt without having killed. Indeed, some unlucky hunters go season after season without taking an animal. Second, they tell me that when a kill does occur, they feel a somber union with and respect for the natural world, not pleasure. Nonetheless, on some level the sport hunter enjoys the experience, and this is the heart of the objection.
Is hunting natural?
In discussions about the morality of hunting, someone inevitably asserts that hunting is a natural activity since all preindustrial human societies engage in it to some degree, and therefore hunting can’t be immoral. But the concept of naturalness is unhelpful and ultimately irrelevant.
A very old moral idea, dating back to the Stoics of ancient Greece, urges us to strive to live in accordance with nature and do that which is natural. Belief in a connection between goodness and naturalness persists today in our use of the word “natural” to market products and lifestyles – often in highly misleading ways. Things that are natural are supposed to be good for us, but also morally good.
Setting aside the challenge of defining “nature” and “natural,” it is dangerous to assume that a thing is virtuous or morally permissible just because it is natural. HIV, earthquakes, Alzheimer’s disease and post-partum depression are all natural. And as The Onion has satirically noted, behaviors including rape, infanticide and the policy of might-makes-right are all present in the natural world.
There are many other moral questions associated with hunting. Does it matter whether hunters use bullets, arrows or snares? Is preserving a cultural tradition enough to justify hunting? And is it possible to oppose hunting while still eating farm-raised meat?
As a starting point, though, if you find yourself having one of these debates, first identify what kind of hunting you’re discussing. If your interlocutor objects to hunting, try to discover the basis for their objection. And I believe you should keep nature out of it.
Finally, try to argue with someone who takes a fundamentally different view. Confirmation bias – the unintentional act of confirming the beliefs we already have – is hard to overcome. The only antidote I know of is rational discourse with people whose confirmation bias runs contrary to my own.
Post your essay. Get expert feedback. For free.We're trying to help students improve their writing the hard way. Do you know students who want critical essay reviews from a professor of English Literature? Click like to share. Click here to sign up and post your own essay. We offer no paid services. All reviews are completely free.
Hunting Is Ethical. Definition Argument: Defining Ethical - With A Free Essay Review
Danielle McQueary; Ms. Brandi Davis; English 102 M 5:00; 12 March 2012
In early America, hunting was the only means of putting meat on the table. It was not questioned, or even given a second thought; it was just a way of life. Today, however, most people rely on the nice man in the white apron to supply them with the meats that they so desire. You know, the guy behind the swinging door in the back of the grocery store.
With the convenience of getting their foods already cleaned, dressed, and prepackaged, it seems that some Americans have forgotten where their ancestors started out in this world. They would say that strapping on insulated boots, putting on camo, and hunting for our own food, means we are partaking in an unethical practice. I choose to believe the contrary. Hunting is an ethical practice because it helps control the population of invasive species, prevents over population of native animals, and deepens the public appreciation for wildlife and their habitats.
Look to the southern states in our nation. For years now, they have been at war with gruesome creatures called wild boar. This animal is not native to the Americas. They were first brought here by early Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto in the 1500's (Jacobs). Since then, they have reproduce very rapidly. The Southwest Florida Water management District states that, They prey on native wildlife, compete with native species for food, and transmit diseases to other wildlife, livestock and humans (Feral Hogs). Boars also destroy crops meant for human food, and pose a real threat to personal safety because of their aggressive nature. To make matters worse, there are very few predecessor of wild hogs to naturally control their numbers. Humans have the ability to do just that through hunting and trapping. When talking about hunting wild pig, many picture dead carcasses left lying where they fall. The opposite is usually true, government agencies, and many individuals, donated the animals remains to be processed to feed the needy (Feral Hogs). This fact shows that hunters are thinking of all sides of the problem at hand. It is considered by many, an obligation to do what we can to control the number of an animal that are destroying our lands and posing a threat to our loved ones health; and currently the only known process to do this is through human intervention.
Another rational aspect that should be brought to light is that the density of native species can be controlled with regulated hunting. For example, in the early 20th century it was a rare occasion to see a whitetail deer in the US. In order to increase the population, laws were passed in the 20s and 30s to severely restrict hunting, particularly of does. These actions worked, but to the extreme.
Each doe that gives birth usually has twins each season. Then in an average of just two years, those fawns are then able to reproduce as well (Jones). Because of this fast rate of change, the amount of whitetail deer have reached a point where it exceeds the carrying capacities of their natural habitats. This means that, in many areas, the ecosystem can not keep the deer that resided there in good physical condition, resulting in diseased, starving deer. Many other things are directly affected as well. The number of vehicle incidents involving deer increases; animal diversity within forest can dwindle due to the low food supplies and lack of protective cover from overeating of the undergrowth by deer; cases of humans infected with diseases like Lyme Disease shoot up; and seedling trees planted to regenerate disappearing woodlands are wiped out by deer foraging for food.
According to KY Department Fish and Wildlife Officer Wayne Wilson, The negatives of population of a specific species can be positively affected by regulated hunting zones and seasons. The zones and regulations of each hunting season are determined by the amount of animals that are present the previous year. If there is an excess of a particular type of animal, then the regulation will allow hunters to take more of those animals. In return, if biologist notice a deficit of that animal the following year, they will decrease the allowable limit for the following season or seasons. In desperate times, hunting seasons can be closed all together. This allows the animal population to 'catch up' to the carrying capacity of the habitat. There are many people within agencies, such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to closely monitor these situations to get the targeted outcome. A lot more than many choose to believe is reviewed than just the wanted revenue from hunting before decisions are made about the hunting limits each season.
When hunting is allowed, biologist take samples from random animals that are taken to test for diseases, cures, and affected. Through this research, they can learn about particular diseases and how they are transmitted, as well as if they pose a threat to humans. In particular, biologist take the brains and brain stems form deer taken in quota hunts to test for various problems (Wilson). If someone from your family were infected with Lyme Disease, the research that is done by these biologist would tell medical professionals what symptoms to look for to diagnose them and what medicines best fight it.
As if the previous statements were not enough to prove that it is ethical, hunting also plays a large part in conservation of the wilderness. Each year many people broaden their respect and understanding of the wilderness through hunting. This respect results in an increased awareness of how important protecting our wildlife and forest are. In turn, many who participate in regulated hunting are contributors to conservation organizations. In fact, Hunting organizations contribute millions of dollars and countless hours of labor to various conservation causes each year (Hunting). Also, the sale of items used for hunting receives a federal excise tax. This money, which in 2009, was some $165 million, is distributed to state agencies where it is used to support wildlife management areas and purchase habitats (Hunting). Hunting is just another tool to get people into the outdoors. The more time they spend there, the harder they will fight for it's preservation.
My determination is that hunting is an ethical practice in every sense. It could be said that it is ethical because it is humans responsibility to help regulate the number of invasive species that we unknowingly promoted in the past, our obligation to control the growth of native species to improve the health of their habitats, and our duty to bring the importance of preserving the outdoors into the fore front. Hunting is a valuable tool to accomplish these task.
Feral Hogs-Frequently Asked Questions. swfwmd.state.fl.us. Southwest Florida Water
Management District, n.d. Web. 02 March 2012.
Hunting. fws.gov. US Fish and Wildlife Service, N.p., 22 March 2010. Web. 02 March 2012
Jacobs, Kathy. History of Wild Pigs. WildPigInfo.msstate.edu. N.p., 10 March 2011. Web.
02 March 2012.
Jones, Stephen, David deCalesta, and Shelby Chunko. Whitetails are Changing our Woodlands. American Forest. Nov-Dec 1993: n. pag. Findarticles. Web. 02 March 2012.
United States Population Density, 1850. etc.usf.edu. Florida Center for Instructional Tech., 5 Jan 2009. Web. 02 March 2012
Wilson, Wayne. Personal interview. 09 March 2012.
You do a pretty good job of making the positive case for hunting. The argument of the essay as a whole is a bit one-sided, but you articulate a strong thesis, and the positive support of that thesis is presented with clarity. The essay is one-sided in that much of your essay focuses only on the importance of hunting for achieving certain desirable results (such as the prevention of traffic accidents or Lyme disease or other negative consequences of uncontrolled populations of certain animals). That allows you to make the argument that hunting is necessary from a certain viewpoint (although that argument is largely implicit in your essay). It also allows you argue that hunting is ethical from a consequentialist point of view, without needing to discuss the morality of the act of killing itself. I don't really see a problem with your making a consequentialist argument, but since this is an essay that, to judge from the complete title, is intended as an exercise in "defining 'ethical'," and since you don't really undertake any definition of ethical action anywhere in the essay, it might be a good idea to reflect on the consequentialist (or utilitarian) character of your ethical argument. You might also bear in mind that the fact that society benefits in some ways from hunting will be a fact accepted by some opponents of your position prior even to their beginning the debate about whether killing animals is ethical.
Now your argument is about hunting in general, or at least apparently so (hunting is ethical). That's a difficult argument to make solely on the basis of examples, since no number of examples would be enough to prove the point; to refute it, I would only need one example of gratuitous hunting that serves no beneficial end. Between the straw-man you initially target who has no good reason for opposing hunting, and does so only out of ignorance (this straw-man tactic is the weakest part of your essay for me) and the hard-line idealist who thinks killing animals is wrong in principle, there are a host of possible opponents who would agree with much of what you say and still think there are examples of gratuitous hunting (e.g., hunting for sport or pleasure) and unregulated, environmentally destructive hunting that is unethical. Obviously to say "some hunting is ethical" is a weaker position than the one you've staked out here, but for that reason it would be a less one-sided and more easily argued one.
Finally, if you want to maintain the stronger position, however, and argue that hunting as such is ethical, then you might also need a principled defense, as opposed to just a utilitarian one, perhaps arguing that it is justified by nature, or you might make a comparative defense (you might argue, for instance, that it is more ethical than farming, which has been criticized for maltreatment of animals and being detrimental to the environment).
P.S. I agree that humans are sometimes the equivalent of feral hogs, but since you didn't meant to suggest that, put the citation outside the quoted text, thus: "... humans" (Feral Hogs).
Submitted by: danielle
There are no comments for this essay.