Sunday, February 27, 2011

What gives me the right?

“What gives you the right to kill a deer”? This was the challenge recently posed to me by a non-hunting friend. She wanted me to explain what gives me, or anyone else, the right to take a life while hunting. Far from being an exhaustive essay on animal rights and the morality of taking an animal’s life, I thought I would try and answer that question from 3 different positions and in a logical and succinct manner.

So what does give me the right to kill an animal and eat it?

Firstly, rights are a social construct, not a physical phenomenon. They are legal-rational prescriptions, not a product of the universe. They are granted to us as individuals by our community. Rights exist where they are upheld by a majority and underwritten by law, contract or mutual understanding. I have rights 1) within a moral community who can 2) ensure my rights at my behest and these two factors are the foundation of any right. Members of my society who are unable to speak for themselves are still ensured of their rights because we recognize and institutionalize these rights as a collective. If you were the only human being on Earth, you could not have any rights. In short, that means the right to kill that deer is a legal assurance and I am given the right to kill it by my society and its legal institutions (as long as I meet certain criteria, otherwise I have no right to kill from a legal standpoint).

Hunting rights may be challenged by some, at certain times, but have never experienced a critical mass of opposition like other actions that are perceived to be intolerable and a violation of rights (e.g. race or gender based rights, sexual equality, secular freedoms, opposition to crass and sadistic cruelty etc.). Actions perceived to be utterly unacceptable by the majority are typically stopped in the name of rights violations, not so for hunting (survey research, at least in North America, shows that the majority are not at all opposed to almost all forms of legal hunting).

Secondly, if I was so inclined, I could answer that my right to kill and eat an animal is Divine, granted to me by the Creator. For many faithful followers of the Abrahamic religions (probably more so than other religions?) their Divinely granted Dominion and human exclusionism would be an overwhelming reason for their right to take a non-human life.

Thirdly and perhaps most pointedly, is the question of ‘moral right’. Moral rights hinge on beliefs surrounding my role in nature and the messy contingencies involved with this; largely questions of ontology. The polemic in the ‘animal rights-rights to kill’ debate typically assumes we are either 1) a part of nature and no different to other sentient beings. Therefor we in no way assume an elevated status over other non-human animals* or, 2) we are uniquely rational beings, capable of ethical and moral introspection. In that capacity are morally bound to not kill animals for our own selfish needs.

If situation 1 is true then the inherent logic implies that I am no more or less guilty than a wolf or lion. Neither of those predators suffers any ethical quandary, has any moral obligation to its prey and in turn those non-human animals they kill cannot pursue any legal recourse for being killed and eaten. In addition, I have evolved the ability and intuition to enable me to hunt, as well as the intelligence that allows me to harness tools to enable hunting success (as is well documented, albeit with less sophistication, in my simian relatives). Therefor my ‘rights’ to kill would be aligned to my ability and desire to do so.

‘Ah but..’ you say, ‘I am not an animal, I have the ability to reason and act with a sense of compassion, not just from brutish instincts that inhibit my conscience from being attuned to acts of cruelty’. If you think that, then we are on the same page! I strongly believe we have a moral obligation to minimise cruelty and ensure the conservation of wildlife and the habitats in which they live. Our friends the lion and wolf don’t, in my opinion, give two hoots about cruelty or conservation. I guess that makes me a ‘human exclusionist’ and member of camp 2. So does that mean I have no moral right to kill? No.

All animals die, whether by predator, harsh winter, drought, car or my intent to eat it. Of course whether you think killing an animal to eat it is acceptable or not is a matter of paradigm. I think it is acceptable. It has been a blip on our species’ evolutionary timeline that we have not hunted or pursued animals out of survival necessity and I for one cherish those instinctual drives to hunt. I am also granted the right by virtue of my evolution to do so and the satisfaction and personal fulfillment I enjoy from walking this instinctual path. Furthermore I eat meat and am of the opinion that my participation in procuring meat is in fact a morally responsible approach. Paradoxically, personal involvement with the death of an animal develops within us less tolerance for cruelty and suffering. The cruelty inherent in modern industrial meat production goes largely unchallenged because we are divorced from the process of killing the animals that we eat. I think that my moral right to kill is therefore upheld by my choice to engage with nature in a perfectly natural cycle of eating, and the assumption of responsibility that comes with killing.

A critic will be quick to point out that I don’t NEED to hunt, even as a meat eater. I will save the debate of the environmental impacts of hunting vs. domestic meat for another time, but my answer is that we could plausibly argue against the NEED for many activities – like sex. Increasing human population is bad for wildlife and technology has surpassed our need for natural fertilization anyway. We also don’t need haute cuisine, experimentation with interesting ingredients or satisfying ‘comfort food’. All we need is sufficient nutrition, however bland that may be. Like that approach? Me neither! Unless our needs are socially or environmentally egregious, justifying the acceptability of needs on pure measurable utility is a slippery slope to cleansing the world of any joy or pleasure. We need to engage in activities that are integral to our wellbeing and sense of purpose. We should participate in our world with some authenticity and I believe involvement with nature provides this, especially hunting because of its relationship to taking life and providing food.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”- Aldo Leopold’s famous quote that captures his ‘land ethic’ does great service to my argument. Modern hunting almost never interferes with the integrity of the biotic community, unless you erroneously conflate the death of an individual with ecological integrity. In fact much of the time it preserves ecological integrity. These facts alone stand in support of the moral right to hunt (I willingly admit that there are unfortunate exceptions and abuses). As long as hunting is undertaken with the intent to minimise suffering, causes no net negatives to the environment and is carried out with a sense of responsibility, then I believe it is not only morally defensible but is in fact morally noble. It certainly isn’t any less moral than eating a plate of tofu grown on eroded fields cleared from former wildlife habitat and devoid of healthy biodiversity.

* Arguments over speciesism and sentience are often the fulcrum of debate on this point, but this is aside my overall point here.

©Brian Joubert