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The Complicated Ethics of African Safaris

photograph of gazelles followed by safari vehicle

For many, the idea of paying great sums of money to travel to Africa and go on a safari promising the opportunity to shoot exotic wild game like giraffes, lions, or elephants is ethically unacceptable. The killing of Cecil the lion, for example, caused outrage around the world. For some, what is objectionable is the idea of slaughtering any animal at all for any purpose. For others, it might be the exploitative nature of Westerners spending large sums of cash to shoot African animals, or the fact that the black market trade of goods like elephant tusks is made worse by the practice of safari hunting. Addressing these issues can be tricky: Germany has recently threatened to place greater limits of trophy hunting due to poaching concerns; Botswana, meanwhile, has threatened to send 20,000 elephants to Germany due to overpopulation of the species. Stories like this remind us how complex the ethical issues involved in animal tourism can be.

Tanzania comes in at 165th place in terms of nominal GDP per capita and Botswana comes in at 86th. These are developing nations where the average person makes relatively little money compared to the rest of the world. Despite this, the very rich can book photo or hunting safaris at five-star hotels like the Four Seasons Serengeti Safari Lodge for thousands of dollars a night. If one wishes to hunt wild game, they can select from an established menu where the price of hunting each animal is clearly listed. Hunting a baboon might cost $100 while hunting a leopard will cost $4500. An African elephant with at least one tusk over 30kg will cost $20,000 to kill.

It’s not surprising why a system like this would strike one as unethical. For starters, there is the basic act of hunting animals for sport, which many consider to be inherently wrong. Since reasonable alternatives to hunting exist, inflicting unnecessary harm and suffering on animals who are living their natural lives is morally wrong. But the consequences are even bigger than this. Trophy hunting not only wrongs the individual organism, but it can affect entire communities of animals if they work on packs or groups. The practice can also destabilize migration and hibernation practices, upsetting the balance of various ecosystems.

In addition to ethical views such as utilitarianism or the capabilities approach which might stress the ethical importance of minimizing harm or having a meaningful relationship with the animal world, there is also the additional concern that certain animals like elephants seem to have a heightened level of consciousness, including the ability to recognize themselves. This suggests that hunting certain kinds of animals may constitute an additional form of wrongdoing.

There is also the fact that these safaris feel like just another case of Western exploitation of African economies. Having outsiders spend small fortunes to hunt (or even photograph) the local fauna while residents survive on a fraction of what is spent each day. If this is one of the few ways to bring investment into the local economy, it would appear African countries don’t have much of a choice about tolerating the practice.

On the other hand, defenders of hunting and photo safaris will argue that conservation of the African savanna requires great sums of money. The national parks and hunting reserves that have been saved from agricultural development creates an opportunity cost for local development that must be offset. If these animals are left alone, they may be more inclined to wander into local villages and cause damage. This possibility makes it difficult for locals to want to support conservation.

Additionally, the high value of black market goods such as ivory presents a significant incentive to engage in poaching. Failing to regulate this practice threatens grave consequences. Given the incentives, we should anticipate a tragedy of the commons scenario where poachers and developers acting only in their self-interest will ruin the local habitats and endanger more animal species.

To prevent outcomes like this, African governments allow trophy hunting and photo safaris because the revenue from these businesses can be used to pay for conservation efforts. According to one study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, trophy hunting contributes more than $341 million to the South African economy and supports more than 17,000 jobs. Safari operations help support anti-poaching patrols, provide employment for locals, and build infrastructure for rural economies.

But defenders of game hunting argue that “African wildlife conservation can only be justified if that ground generates enough revenue to support local communities whilst maintaining a healthy ecosystem.” Hunting and photo safaris then must accomplish a great many tasks. Ultimately, the hope is that we might incentivize active conservation by giving these animals a very different kind value. Killing some animals thus becomes a means to save many more.

Still, many consider the defense of safari hunting on the grounds that it provides the resources required for conservation to be questionable. A separate study conducted for Humane Society International has found that the economic benefits of trophy hunting are sometimes overstated. They found, for example, that trophy hunting only contributes closer to $132 million per year. There are also concerns that studies do not properly consider the difference in the economic benefits of not engaging in trophy hunting and engaging in it when it comes to comparing tourism projections.

Even if we consider only photo safaris, there are risks that creating a market to support conservation has led to a perverse incentive. The money to be made from tourism often proves too enticing, leading to greater development of infrastructure to support more and more tourists instead of greater conservation efforts. Further, There are concerns that tourists coming to Africa to see pristine wilderness are destroying it by their very actions. Even without hunting, wildebeests are declining and migration patterns and behavior of wild animals are changing as they become more and more accustomed to photo tourists.

Easy answers to these growing problems are nowhere in sight. While we may have moral objections to these safaris, banning the practice could very well lead to worse outcomes for the local animal populations. It’s far from clear what course of action will produce the greatest benefits over the long term.

The Hunting with Dogs Bill: Dominance Hierarchies and Animal Rights

photograph of rider on horseback with hunting hounds

The practice of hunting with dogs traces back to ancient Egypt. It became particularly popular in Britain in the 16th century when social clubs began using dogs with highly developed senses of scent to track woodland animals, dominantly foxes. Participants engaged in the activity primarily for sport. For the most part, the practice in this region of the world has now come to an end. On January 23, 2023, the Hunting with Dogs Bill was passed in Scotland. The ban does not outlaw hunting outright, nor does it even ban the practice of hunting with dogs. What the bill does do is make it illegal to chase and hunt animals with a pack of more than two dogs for sport. But farmers and ranchers can apply for exemptions for the purposes of “wildlife management.”

The bill has received mixed responses from communities of animal advocates and serves to highlight key differences between approaches to thinking about our obligations to non-human animals.

One dominant line of reasoning in animal ethics is that we ought to focus on animal welfare. Animal welfare approaches frequently direct their attention not toward banning human use of animals outright, but toward making such practices less cruel or harmful. So, for example, the advocate of an animal welfare approach might focus not on eliminating factory farming, but on making the practices used as part of factory farming more humane. This is the kind of strategy that has been successful when it comes to legislation mandating that egg-laying hens be raised cage-free.

The argument against hunting with dogs takes a similar approach. The argument is that being chased by a large pack of dogs causes animals such as deer, hares, and foxes extreme distress. The animals who end up dying directly in the hunt do not die quickly and painlessly; they are ripped to death by a large pack of dogs against whom they never stood much of a chance. The animals who aren’t ultimately caught by the dogs and don’t die directly as a result of the hunt nevertheless experience severe psychological and physiological problems as a result of the trauma. Some of them suffer injuries that they must deal with for the rest of their lives. Some animal welfare theorists argue that it may not be possible to end hunting entirely, but we ought to ban this form of hunting because it is cruel and unusual.

Other animal advocates do not support the Hunting with Dogs Bill in its current form. Those who adopt this philosophy take on the perspective articulated by philosopher Tom Regan that “the truth of animal ethics requires empty cages, not larger cages.” Thinkers like Regan who believe that we should be focusing on rights rather than simply on welfare are likely to think of the Hunting with Dogs Bill as incoherent. After all, if we acknowledge that for sentient beings who can experience pain, being ripped apart while still alive is a bad thing, preventing these animals from being ripped alive by large packs of dogs doesn’t go far enough. We should outlaw dog hunting in any form by any number of dogs.

If what bothers society is the purpose for which animals are being hunted, then we should go beyond banning hunting for sport using dogs. We should ban hunting for sport altogether. Anything less is not just inconsistent, but inconsistent in ways that have life-or-death implications for countless animals.

Once one acknowledges that we have moral obligations to non-human animals in light of the kinds of beings that they are and the relationship in which we stand to them, it becomes difficult (or perhaps impossible) to effectively defend the position that it is acceptable to torture and kill them, for sport or otherwise.

Of course, animal advocates are not the only parties in Scotland or in Britain who disagree over laws of this type. There is strong pressure from some groups to overturn the legislation. Many of the arguments rest on familiar attitudes about the nature of non-human animals and their relationship to humans. This may have something to do with the fact that attitudes about species hierarchy have been dominant in the Western thought tradition since Aristotle, who famously argued in Politics that,

after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man.

Following Aristotle, those who argue that humans have a right to hunt with animals, using dogs or otherwise, claim that the universe is purposeful and that humans, the only rational animals, were placed by nature at the top of a dominance hierarchy. The Bible seemingly lends the authority of God to this position in Genesis,

And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

In addition to arguments in support of dominance and hierarchy, advocates of dog hunting argue that they have a right to their cultural traditions. For instance, this month, Scotland’s Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire Hunt, which met for the first time in the 1700s, announced that, as a result of the new bill, they could no longer conduct their hunt and that their 300-hundred-year tradition was now coming to an end.

Friends of the hunt might point to the social importance of pluralism about values and attitudes about the nature of the good.

Liberal societies can only function well if we both recognize and accept that people do not share the same ethical convictions. People will simply have to agree to disagree about whether animals have rights, and animal advocates shouldn’t force their attitudes on others.

In response, defenders of animals argue that pluralism is laudable as it relates to liberties such as free exercise of religion, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of association, but there are limits. We shouldn’t be value pluralists when it comes to the exploitation, oppression, and death of sentient creatures with lives and relationships of their own.

They might argue further that Darwin effectively demonstrated that the universe is not teleological — it had no particular hierarchy in mind and did not have the intention (nor could it) to enthrone human reason. We should be willing to critically analyze the ways in which appeal to reasoning capacities has been weaponized through the years to justify the oppression of women, children, and racial and ethnic minorities. Western thought has denigrated the body while glorifying the mind, while at the same time associating targets of oppression more closely with the body. As Cathryn Bailey powerfully articulates in her contribution to The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics,

Against this socially constructed background of clumsy brutes, sometimes childlike, sometimes dangerous, animals, women, and people of color have been made to serve as a kind of foil to the purity and controlled exercise of rationality.

In light of these observations, we ought to proceed with caution when we feel inclined to make dominance claims or to force sentient beings into value hierarchies. Humans have done this poorly for all of recorded history with disastrous consequences. We may one day come to see our treatment of non-human animals in the same way.

Hunting with Intention: In Defense of Hunting for Meat

photograph of buck in misty field

Daniel Story recently offered an interesting argument against a common intuition many of us seem to share. We often think that there is an important moral difference between hunting for meat and hunting for trophies. Hunting for meat seems more morally defensible because the benefits of receiving food excuse the harm to animals – but there are no comparable reasons to hunt for trophies (these are, as the argument goes, only egoistical desires to kill something big).

Daniel thinks this is wrong because there is precious little that might mark a relevant moral difference between the trophy hunter and the food hunter.

Both of these hunters (assuming that they are hunting because they want to, not because they need to) will get nutrition anyway and both types of hunter will equally serve conservation purposes. Ultimately, both hunters have killed an animal, and the considerations we typically look to in order to explain why one might be better than the other don’t actually lead to the conclusion we imagine. In the end, Daniel argues, it all comes down to the pleasure that these hunters derive from their kill, and there’s no reason to think that one type of pleasure is morally preferable to the other.

But this seems a perverse result. In fact, trophy hunting might be morally better because the trophy is something the hunter can admire for the rest of his life, it doesn’t get eaten within weeks. The trophy hunter enjoys a longer-lasting pleasure. If Daniel is right then, at the very least, hunting for meat is not obviously better than hunting for trophies, despite our widespread agreement on this. And if it turns out that trophy hunting is morally unacceptable, then it will mean that hunting for meat (if you don’t need to hunt to get food) is also unacceptable.

I think Daniel is offering us something really interesting, and it has given me plenty to think about. So, I want to do what any philosopher wants to do: I want to object.

In particular, I want to look at a response Daniel offers to a particular objection. He imagines a critic who argues that eating hunted meat respects an animal’s dignity. He rightly points out that a slain animal likely doesn’t care if it rots or is eaten. But I think Daniel might focus too closely on the act of killing this one particular deer.

There might be another way of thinking about these issues – one that focuses less on this particular deer’s particular death – that leads to different results.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the giants of later 20th-century ethics, argued in After Virtue that we should not think about ethics just in terms of actions, but instead in terms of broader narratives. There is much to be said here, so I’ll stick to the core and use one of his examples.

Think about why somebody is digging in the garden. We can’t make sense of why he is doing that unless we know more about the context. Is he getting exercise, is he gardening, is he preparing for winter, is he trying to please his wife? He might be gardening because he wants to get exercise and prepare the garden for winter. He might be doing it solely because it is an easy form of exercise his doctor suggested to him, and he doesn’t care at all about the results. He might be doing it to please his wife – and to understand why taking exercise, or getting the garden ready, would please his wife, we need to understand his marriage.

As MacIntyre puts it, we cannot “characterize behavior independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible both to agents themselves and to others.”

What does this have to do with our argument about hunting? Well, think more broadly about how we might characterize hunting and the motives around it. I think there’s something to be said for the idea that hunting for a trophy is often egoistic and driven by a perverse machismo.

Take the example Daniel opens his piece with: the American dentist who shot Cecil the lion. We don’t just think of the death of Cecil as an isolated act, we think about it in terms of conservation, respect for nature, and arrogant wealthy Americans showing no respect for this. That narrative matters.

Hunting for food might be driven by a desire to connect to the land, or respect the animal you kill by going through the time and effort to kill it yourself (appreciating that this life should not be taken easily, in a crate in a factory, for instance), or providing for yourself and your family. That’s not to say that they have to hunt, but when a friend hosts us at a party and provides food, they have still given us a gift we might be grateful for, even if we would have just eaten beforehand if there was no food at the party. When we look at things this way, hunting for meat might seem to be better than hunting just for trophies.

Now, Daniel is right that the animal might not accept that explanation (if only it could offer a post-mortem judgment on these things), but that doesn’t mean there is no relevant difference here. To adapt an example from Bernard Williams, Gauguin’s wife might not accept that he wants to leave so he can paint in Tahiti and create great works of art, and she might also not accept it if he leaves her for a younger model. Yet we can see that there is a difference here: one of these aims is nobler than the other. Likewise, the deer might not agree that one death is better than the other, but we can see that one form of hunting is morally superior.

Certainly I have offered an argument that conclusively shows that there is something more morally noble about wanting to hunt for meat than to hunt for trophies. But I do think that there might be other ways of looking at the issue – ways which suggest that the context, the narrative, the intention, of meat hunters and trophy hunters allow the different moral situations to come apart.

Trophy Hunting Is Immoral Only If Hunting for Meat Is Immoral

photograph of stuffed birds and animal heads on hunting lodge wall

On July 2nd, 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer (legally) killed a lion named Cecil, a favorite of visitors of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The news of Cecil’s death and several unsavory pictures of Palmer went viral, prompting a vicious backlash against Palmer and an international discussion about the morality of trophy hunting. People all over the world condemned the practice, and many people became convinced that trophy hunting is immoral.

My topic in this post is the morality of trophy hunting. Instead of denouncing or defending the practice, I argue that a distinction sometimes drawn by opponents of the practice cannot be maintained.

Some people believe that trophy hunting is inherently reprehensible yet hunting for meat is not. In my view, there is no inherent morally significant difference between trophy hunting and hunting for meat.

So, trophy hunting ought to be universally condemned only if meat hunting ought to be universally condemned.

First, let’s get clear on some terms and the scope of my claims. By ‘trophy hunting,’ I mean recreational hunting (or fishing) for trophies, sport, or prestige, without the intention of keeping meat for consumption. By ‘meat hunting,’ I mean recreational hunting (or fishing) with the intention of keeping some meat for consumption. Crucially, I limit my discussion to hunting as it is practiced by well-to-do Westerners and others who do not need to hunt to sustain themselves.

Now, to the argument.

Most people believe that animals matter, morally speaking. Although people disagree about how much and in what ways animals matter, there are zones of clear consensus. For instance, almost everyone would agree that it would be wrong to vivisect a stray dog in order to amuse guests at a party (as it is rumored the philosopher René Descartes did), mainly because the great harm that would be done to the dog by such an action would not be outweighed by other sufficiently important moral considerations.

Likewise, almost everyone would agree that hunting is permissible only if the harm or setback to the hunted animal is outweighed by other morally important considerations.

If hunting were, in general, perfectly analogous to frivolous vivisection, everyone would universally condemn it.

As it stands, hunting is not perfectly analogous to frivolous vivisection. While both activities involve animal suffering and death, the former but not the latter is associated with morally important goods. For one, hunting can have beneficial environmental and social effects. Hunting can be used to control invasive species, raise money for conservation, and so forth. Then there are the benefits to the hunter. I’m told hunting can be deeply pleasurable. Reportedly, it can be exhilarating, relaxing, challenging, satisfying, even transcendent. I’ve never been hunting, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset can:

When one is hunting, the air has another, more exquisite feel as it glides over the skin or enters the lungs, the rocks acquire a more expressive physiognomy, and the vegetation becomes loaded with meaning. But all this is due to the fact that the hunter, while he advances or waits crouching, feels tied through the earth to the animal he pursues, whether the animal is in view, hidden, or absent.

Unlike the experience of partygoers watching a frivolous vivisection, the experience Gasset describes seems significantly valuable. Apart from the experience of hunting, the projects, skills, activities, and communities connected with the practice are part of what makes life meaningful and interesting to many hunters. And finally, there are the spoils. Trophy hunters obtain war stories, heads, antlers — that sort of thing. Meat hunters obtain meat. Hunters desire these spoils and are pleased when they obtain them, and since we have moral reason to care about whether a person is pleased and gets what they want, these spoils are morally important, too.

Now, you might think that the goods associated with recreational hunting can never outweigh its morally objectionable features. If so, then you probably already agree with me that there is no fundamental distinction between trophy and meat hunting. Both are always wrong. Many people, however, believe that hunting is permissible if and only if it yields some particular combination of the goods just enumerated. In other words, the overall benefits of hunting can (but won’t always) outweigh the harm to the hunted animals. For instance, you might think that deer hunting is permissible so long as the practice benefits the ecosystem and the hunter eats the meat.

I believe that ideas of this sort are what usually lead people to conclude that there is some inherent moral difference between meat hunting and trophy hunting.

Somehow, the fact that the hunter consumes parts of the hunted animal is supposed to justify the harm done to the animal in a way that nothing else, except perhaps direct environmental or social benefits, can.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the value gained by eating hunted meat is not relevantly different from the value associated with the hunting experience itself or with the procurement of trophies. Eating hunted meat may be especially pleasurable, but it does not provide a well-off Westerner with any more sustenance than could be obtained by eating beans and a B12 supplement. Thus, when trying to determine if the suffering and death of a hunted animal is compensated for by the good that comes of it, we shouldn’t count the fact that the hunter will obtain sustenance by hunting, since the hunter will obtain sustenance either way. All the value gained by eating a hunted animal as opposed to letting the animal live and eating beans comes from the special pleasure obtained by eating the hunted animal.

An analogy may help make this last point clearer. Suppose you are trying to decide between eating dinner at two equally nutritious but differently priced restaurants. The fact that you will eat something nutritious if you go to the more expensive restaurant cannot play a part in justifying the extra money you would spend in going there, because you will eat something nutritious in either case. Spending the extra money is worth it only if the more expensive restaurant will provide you with a sufficiently more pleasurable gustatory experience.

And here’s the thing.

In principle, a trophy hunter can get the same amount of pleasure out of admiring a stuffed lion’s head or telling a great story as the meat hunter can get from eating hunted meat.

In fact, the trophy hunter’s pleasure is likely to be longer lasting, since trophies, unlike meat, needn’t be consumed to be enjoyed. So, if trophy hunting is universally morally problematic because the suffering and death of the animal can never be outweighed by the benefits of the practice, then recreational meat hunting is universally problematic, too, since both produce basically the same types of benefits. It looks as if there is no inherent morally important difference between recreational meat hunting and trophy hunting.

Let me consider two objections.

An objector might point out that trophy hunting is more likely than meat hunting to produce negative environmental and social effects since trophy hunters are more often interested in targeting endangered species, megafauna, and so on. If so, then trophy hunters need to be more careful than meat hunters when selecting their targets so as to avoid producing these effects. But the issue at hand is not whether it is morally acceptable to hunt this or that animal (in this or that context). The issue is whether eating the meat of a hunted animal makes any deep moral difference. And trophy hunting (as I’ve defined it) needn’t produce any special environmental or social effects. For example, someone who hunts deer in Putnam County and secretly throws the meat away is going to produce the same basic environmental and social impact as someone in Putnam County who consumes the deer they hunt.

An objector might argue that eating a hunted animal’s meat is the only way to properly respect its dignity. I find this hard to accept. First, it’s likely all the same to the dead animal; unlike humans, most animals do not have wishes or customs concerning the handling of their corpses. Second, a carcass left in the field by a hunter undergoes the same fate as a carcass of an animal that died naturally. How, then, can this fate constitute an indignity?

My argument, if successful, shows that from a moral perspective there is nothing special about trophy hunting. When an incident like the one involving Palmer and Cecil next captures the world’s attention, I think it would be a mistake for us to focus on the trophy hunting aspect. The relevant questions concern the morality of hunting the type of animal killed and of hunting (by well-to-do Westerners and others who don’t need the meat) generally.