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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.