Friday, June 18, 2010

Flat-out on the Ethics of Hunting, and Fair Chase in particular

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Quite a while back, a number of thoughtful hunters in the blogosphere started a round-robin sort of series of posts on the ethics of hunting, in particular over the concept known as fair chase.  (Phillip at Hog Blog has a good compilation of the links.)  Fair chase has an interesting history, in the United States becoming ingrained in the community as hunters both became less dependent upon killing for the table, and as technological gains substantially changed the nature of hunting. 
For those of you who don't hunt, fair chase is the idea that hunters should use equipment and techniques that limit their chances, in order to make the hunt more fair for prey.  That description sounds weird, especially because we are talking life-and-death, so let's put it in context:  Humans have devised many techniques to very efficiently take animals.  When hunting was vital to peoples' food, hunters would drive large herds over cliffs, use fire to burn out places and drive animals, use bait to bring animals to places where they could be dispatched more easily, use traps, etc.  As we grew more technologically advanced, and as economic systems encouraged larger and larger takings, acquiring wild meat became very easy - actually, too easy, and animal populations plummeted.  Today, in the parts of the world where hunting is not vital to providing food, and where commercial hunting has been outlawed due to its tremendous impacts, hunters have often developed the concept of fair chase as a way to hone skills and to properly manage their impacts on animal populations.

Well, after having read blog posts and comments, I felt just about everything had been said, and didn't see much to contribute.  And yet, I felt like there was a piece missing in the connection between fair chase as a personal choice and fair chase as an ethical concept.  On a broader note, I truly believed that there was something to the ethics of hunting that needed to be said, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

But the other day, Tovar's piece on his problems with Ortega y Gasset led me to a stronger connection to one idea about fair chase developing as a replacement for hunger as the impetus for improving one's skill.  I had already believed this, but in contemplating the conversations related to Tovar's post, it dawned on me that this is a sufficient reason to consider fair chase an ethic rather than an aesthetic.

The betterment of skill is desired by a hunter, at least because of the improved results that come with skill, and oftentimes the desire to make quick, clean kills to minimize pain and other negative impacts on the prey and habitat.   Improving one's skill, therefore, is a "good", both in the Aristotelian definition of the word and in the definition as described by many other ethical philosophies (e.g., Kantian, utilitarian, Judeo-Christian). 

Hunting traditions place fine skill above almost anything else.  An expensive gun may be envied, and nice clothes do sell, but real admiration and respect goes to the hunters who have honed their skills to a great degree.  Tracking, understanding habitat, weather, and especially the spirit of the prey are most appreciated, as are a respect for and skill with one's equipment.  The next time you get a chance, ask a hunter which he feels more admiration for, a man with a Kimber shotgun who hits 10 out of 25 clay pigeons, or a man with a Mossberg who can hit all of them, and I will 100% guarantee you how the hunter will answer.  When hunger and the need to provide for family and community were lost from hunting, and when human ingenuity outpaced animals' abilities, fair chase became the impetus for honing one's skills and techniques.  

Many hunting traditions have strong codes of conduct, strong ethical traditions.  In fact, skills that would be merely important in other endeavors, but not ethically so, reach the level of ethos in hunting because of the seriousness of the activity.  In the past, hunger drove hunting, and good hunters were rewarded, but due to our social nature, everybody was rewarded by the good hunters, too.  "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" provides one great example of this shared good through individual skill.  In addition, a hunter could very well be successful today and horribly unsuccessful for the next few weeks, or even be wounded in the field.  Because of these factors, magnanimity, humility, and respect for the environs are other ethical claims in which many hunters strongly believe.  The vital need for success, the finality and emotional ambiguity involved in killing and death, the dangers involved in taking to the wilds after animals, and the necessary respect for and constant need to improve skills, all exemplify why hunting lives by an ethical code rather than just a series of preferences, and why the conversations around hunting are so passionate. 

This digging deep into the human soul is actually why many are attracted to hunting, especially in our culture, where few things are left that have such depth and importance, or deal with such basic human needs and concerns with such seriousness and sincerity.

So, skill is not merely something that a person might or might not work to improve in hunting like it is, say, in basketball.  A person may play pool occasionally, or go bowling without practice, but the person who claims to be a hunter without trying to improve their skills at the very least in preparation for the hunt commits an unethical act, as their actions will more likely result in no animal, or worse, a wounded animal, or even worse, a wounded person.  A person dismissive of skillfulness in hunting crosses a line that doesn't exist in a pick-up basketball game or photography.

Without the vital need for sustenance, without the need to rely on others directly or supply food for neighbors and family, hunters still value skill beyond just a neat thing to acquire, and they have devised fair chase in consideration of conservation efforts, and in understanding the need to improve skills, both of which are ethical concerns.  And since the reasons for fair chase are ethical reasons, the act of fair chase is an ethical concern, too.

Please weigh in - let me know what you think of the concept of fair chase, or of the ethics of hunting.


NorCal Cazadora said...

You make some good points, particularly this one:

"This digging deep into the human soul is actually why many are attracted to hunting, especially in our culture, where few things are left that have such depth and importance, or deal with such basic human needs and concerns with such seriousness and sincerity."

But I'm not sure that I believe fair chase is the impetus for skill improvement. In my limited time as a hunter (<4 years), I can definitely say it's not my motivation for improvement.

I believe we are just hardwired to respect, admire and emulate any people who hone their skills - witness our worship of great athletes, great actors, great thinkers.

I have participated in some very unfair-chase hunts, primarily planted-bird hunts, and they leave me longing for greater challenge. I don't feel the weight of the hunting community's fair-chase jury on me; I just want to be able to shed the training wheels and do something that, to me, would be more meaningful.

There are about a thousand other things I could say about fair chase, but in the interest of staying focused and getting other work done today, I'll keep it at this.

Josh said...

Thanks, Cazadora! You are right about other, heavier weights than fair chase for some. I probably should have been more clear and said that fair chase is a sort of codified ethos within the community, and not the only one.

I also agree that we are "hardwired" to admire masters. It's just that, in hunting, that mastery has ethical undertones (wounding, personal danger, responsibility to the community, etc.) that don't exist in other endeavors, especially in those endeavors labeled "sport."

Tovar said...

Interesting post, Josh!

I’m with you on the ethical concerns inherent in various aspects of hunting: safety, survival of one’s community, the question of death and killing, the imperative to make the kill as swift as possible, and so on. I don’t think any conscientious person can separate hunting from ethical concerns.

And, yes, skill is crucial to the effective implementation of ethical practices in hunting.

From there, I’m not sure I follow your move to fair chase being “the impetus for improving one’s skill.”

Certainly many hunters, as they increase in skill, choose to limit themselves to simpler technologies (e.g. bow instead of gun, longbow instead of compound) or tactics (e.g. from the ground instead of from a treestand). This can be understood as a choice to increase the “fairness” of the chase. And we might well respect the hunter both for his or her skill AND for the choice of limitations.

But did the hunter increase his or her skill IN ORDER TO make the chase fairer? I’m not sure. One could argue the opposite: that the chase is fairer when the hunter is clueless. An unskilled hunter is not safer or more merciful, but might be more easily eluded.

Whaddya think?

Tovar said...

P.S. Thinking on this a bit more, I guess you're arguing that hunters increase their skill in order to overcome the limitations imposed by fair chase (whether legally or by personal choice). And you're also arguing that fair chase came about, at least in part, as a way of making hunters develop skill. Yes?

Josh said...

Tovar, thanks for your comments here. 'Yes' to your second comment.

I think that hunters engage in fair chase practices in order to make the chase "fairer", because that is the flip-side of making the hunt more difficult.

The question I pondered was, why make the chase more difficult? I settled on two reasons, based on my understanding of U.S. history at the time of the creation of fair chase: 1) to hold back the teeming masses that did hunt, in order to give game animals the opportunity sustain adequate populations (this was also one reason for TR's love of national parks, by the way); and 2) to offer an opportunity to hone one's skill, now that this skill was no longer as vital to the community, yet outdoors skills were still considered inherently manly and valuable social traits (Seton's book providing the impetus for the Boy Scouts offers a good glimpse into that mentality). Also, sorry to Cazadora to the "manly" comment - it's true to the historical context, yet too confining for today.

I believe that since both of these are ethical claims, therefore the concept of fair chase has an ethical component.

I'm not saying it's the only game in town, but even those in our community who far prefer wild game to store-bought, and believe that industrializing animals is wrong, still only load three shells in their autoloaders, and don't take punt guns out on the lake... and not because they are afraid of the cops, either.

Phillip said...

Interesting, and certainly a bit to think on. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks "thinking on" things outside of work and family has taken a backseat. Not a lot of mental capacity left for that kind of thing lately.

But, I'll dig in this much...

On a lot of levels, I totally agree with what I think you're getting at, Josh. Many hunters tend to up the challenge as they become more successful, and as one skill is mastered, they often move on to a new one (e.g. from rifle to bow).

While you might argue that it's the result of wanting to optimize the hunting experience, someone else might argue that they're simply trying to stave off boredom as things get "too easy." What's the fun in shooting fish in a barrel?

I know, that sort of makes short of your well-considered and well-written post, and of course that's not my intent. There's a lot of meat there around that exposed bone and I'm sure it's flavorful to the folks who want to gnaw on it a while.

I may bite off a little more later, but I'm feeling kind of brain dead.

Josh said...

Phillip, if that's brain-dead, then I don't know what to call my brain...

Thanks for your thoughts here. You make a good point, and I agree, many hunters take on the more difficult hunts when things get "boring" sometimes, or for a sense of adventure, etc. I don't think it sells short my concept, either.