Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On ethics: hunters vs. nonhunters

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Phillip over at the Hog Blog has an interesting piece on the idea of hunters who purport to hunt for ethical reasons quite possibly creating a false dichotomy or a subtext of superiority over those who do not hunt. 

He specifically points me out (in amazing company), though he does so in a nice way.

It's a great read, I highly recommend it (he writes circles around me, which isn't fair, so keep that in mind).

Basically, Phillip thinks that we may be creating a "false dichotomy" in claiming that our hunting has an ethical component to it.  I've way oversimplified his article (read it, he makes more sense and includes more nuance), but that is the gist as I see it.  For example, Phillip writes,

"Hunters... say that they accept the role of predator, and by this acceptance they feel a critical connection.  By the blood on their hands, they have taken responsibility for the death of the animal and become active participants in the primal cycle of life and death. This provides a deeper understanding of the natural world and environment.  With this sense of connection comes a suggestion of moral superiority."

I feel that comment all the way up to the "moral superiority" claim, but that is only because I think there are real distinctions among ethically preferable actions, feelings of moral superiority, and expressions of profound connections and feelings that relate to human nature.

We all make choices based on ethics; we all take ethically preferable actions.  We don't, for example, actually physically accost the person who cut us off on the interstate.  We help our neighbors and friends.  Many people give to charities.  All of these actions are ethical choices, they are, at their most basic, sets of "should" or "ought" statements that we have answered. 

Further, we all make ethical claims on other people.  Here in the U.S., our general public ethos has a strong libertarian bent, and so it is often hidden from view, but every time a person says that a person has a right to do something, that person is making an ethical claim.  For example, Americans are often incensed when a person is shouted down, or not allowed to speak at all.  We say, "hey, he has the right to say his piece, even if it's ridiculously stupid or even mean."  Effectively, we are telling the bully to shut up and let the other guy speak, and this is an ethical claim we place on the bully. 

To me, anyway, this is different from claiming moral superiority.  Moral superiority implies a personal, patriarchal or condescending superiority lorded over others.  If we were to make all ethical decisions equal to a sense of moral superiority, and therefore try to avoid it (an ethical claim, by the way, to say that moral superiority should not be pursued), not one of us would be able to function in society. 

Phillip is concerned that hunters may alienate non-hunters, and give anti-hunters more ammunition, by making our ethical preferences clear, because it may be perceived as moral superiority.  He is worried that we hunters who talk about our ethical reasons for hunting may come off as evangelical blowhards who, instead of encouraging more people to hunt and support hunting, turn non-hunters off from the whole shebang.  And he has a point, but only to a point. 

There is a dichotomy between hunters and anti-hunters, and it is an ethical dichotomy.  No matter how hunters act, anti-hunters have decided that all hunting is ethically wrong, and they will always think that is so, as a group (which is why they label themselves "anti-hunting").

The public's decision-making power determines all other actions, and many people make their decisions based on ethics.  To pretend that hunting is just another sport, like basketball, is to falsely downplay both its bloody and violent nature as well as its values to society.  Nonhunters know that hunting is bloody and violent, that it hurts animals.  If hunters do not point out hunting's values to society, there will be no counter to this set of feelings, and hunting will take even more pressure. 

Further, if hunters actively refuse to point out the ethical value of hunting, we may just as easily come off as looking "morally superior", withholding some kind of secret, as if the public isn't worthy of knowing the profound nature of hunting.  Hunters, therefore, do need to illustrate, to the public, that hunting is an ethically preferable exercise to not hunting, though, like many ethical claims, it is not for everyone in all cases and times. 

But there is something else.  Phillip is taking issue with expressing the feelings of connectedness with nature that hunting can bring.  This may not even be ethical, much less "morally superior", but it is a profound set of feelings that talk about human nature - always a sticky subject.  Truly, for the hunters I know who have been moved by the nature of hunting, I've never felt a sense of "moral superiority", but instead a desire to express the profundity, the intimacy and finality and love of hunting, that they feel.  Is there an ethical claim in there?  Perhaps.  But just as likely, there may be a sense among some that expressing something that changed a person's life and nature may be uncomfortable to consider. 

But, like I said, Phillip has a point.  There is a time and place for these arguments, and times and places where they aren't appropriate.  Obviously, judging by my traffic here, I'm still working on that one, but Holly and Tovar have their audiences down pat, so I think they understand the appropriateness of the subject.

For me, I know my writing comes off as stuffy and probably a tad haughty, but that's just the way I write.  I try to do better, but I often just let it stand.  In my defense, my conversations with nonhunters do not ever come off this way.  Most times, I get people who have always wanted to try hunting (or fishing), even among groups that are normally considered hostile toward hunting.  Even among people who don't express a desire to hunt, I've, with only one exception I can remember, never had a hostile reception to my hunting.  What I almost always experience, instead, is a conversation about the profundity of and love for nature.  So I'll keep on talking about the ethics of hunting as well as the other parts of it, too.  It's gained me some great friends, and I feel it may help, if only a little bit, in getting people to understand hunting and its value.  But, because I respect Phillip so very much, I might tone down my rhetoric in the vacuum of the internet.  Maybe.

Phillip ends his piece with these words:  "I sometimes wonder why we can’t just say we enjoy something because we find it enjoyable", to which I respond:  Where's the blog content in that?
; )


Phillip said...

Hey Josh,

Good stuff and thanks for the kind words.

Just wanted to clarify that much of what I wrote in that post was intended more as an intellectual ramble than a specific position statement on my part. For example, I also consider the "connection to nature," and "taking responsibility for the death of the animal" to be a big part of why I hunt... and I'm pretty sure I don't feel morally superior to anyone else, hunter or no.

Or maybe I do?

It's more a question of perception, and maybe a nudge to keep folks thinking about how what they say jibes with what they really feel... not to mention what other people think they mean... and maybe a dig into those deeply embedded, subconscious ideas that drive our motivations in the first place.

Anyway, I wanted to be sure you understood that, because I posited those ideas, it doesn't necessarily mean that's what I think... only that it's what I was thinking about.

A sense of moral superiority, by the way, isn't necessarily a bad thing... if you're right. ;-)

Josh said...

Phillip, if I had to clarify every time my post was an "intellectual ramble", I'd never get to write anything else.

Your stuff is great, there's no need for thanks.

NorCal Cazadora said...

"... a nudge to keep folks thinking about how what they say jibes with what they really feel..."

I.e., not sugarcoating it? Heh heh heh. Check!

Seriously, though, this is a really nice discussion and my main regret is that it took me so long to join it. Josh, you and Phillip have both made good points, and provoked appropriately.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Nice work, Joshua.

And just to underline what you say here: the connectedness piece is HUGE. It accounts for most of the "more to it, of course" part of the comment that I (finally) just left over on Phillip's blog. It also accounts for a lot of what I'm hearing from the adult-onset hunters I've been interviewing in recent months.

Josh said...

Cazadora and Tovar, thanks for reading along. I'm not an adult-onset hunter (in fact, my from my hunting was born my environmentalism), but there was a day when I grew up that I realized its importance to me.