Friday, May 27, 2011

Towards objective hunting ethics?

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do”

- Potter Stewart

I embark on writing my thoughts about hunting ethics with some trepidation. Far from being prosaic, there are few discussions surrounding hunting that can be as fierce as those concerning ethics. Often these debates descend into a quagmire of subjectivity and opinion; proponents of widely varying ethical views predictably claim a right to their doctrines and challenge others to disprove their definitions of sound and acceptable conduct. While hunting ethics can be a horribly messy issue with ample room for debate at their margins, there are certain fundamentals that I believe the vast majority can, and do, agree on.

I wanted to reduce the notion of hunting ethics into four broad criteria. Admittedly, each one in itself represents a knot of issues which alone are fuel for fervid debate. However, with consideration for some of the contingencies within each, I feel they represent a useful starting point for cementing an objective set of hunting ethics. My four criteria are as follows:

1) Minimise suffering in prey animals

Simply put, this means we must strive to ensure quick, clean kills. It means respecting the prey animal’s sentience. This typically means one must be proficient with your hunting tools of choice, know the limitations of those tools and your skills, be well familiar with the vital anatomy of the prey and be confident of delivering the intended shot. More pointedly, it commits you to be honest enough to turn down the opportunity to shoot if you don’t feel confident. Of course these recommendations are also fare for debate. Some swear, for example, that a .22 Hornet is ideal for deer; others consider it unethical for anything larger than hares. Some hunters are practiced enough to execute consistent 500 yard shots on deer, others shoot their rifles once every two years. This reverts us back to subjective parameters for determining ethics but if we use the baseline goal of striving for the highest probability for a quick and humane kill, we are able to strip away actions based on chance-taking and honestly admit whether we are in a position to achieve that goal.

2) Strive to leave no net negative environmental impacts from your hunting activity.

In other words, tread as lightly as you can. While this mantra carries its maximum worth when applied across lifestyle choices, as hunters we must take seriously our claims to be ecologically conscious. ‘Leave no trace’ camping, staying on defined roads and trails as much as possible, minimising harassment of non-prey animals and generally making sure we treat the areas we hunt with reverence. This includes manufactured landscapes like agricultural areas, which still provide valuable wildlife habitat.

3) Minimise social conflict

This means one should hunt with manners and consideration. Manners towards other hunters and people we may encounter, their space in the field, their stands or their camps. Of course if this decorum is not forthcoming towards you from others then let them know, being considerate doesn’t imply the character of a wilting flower! Treat land owners with the utmost respect and gratitude. I cannot understand willful trespassing and the vandalism or disregard for the property of someone who grants you permission to hunt. They have the property rights, you want to hunt, it’s simple.

4) Obey all relevant laws

Laws as ethics are a bit of a catch-all category. Most hunting laws exist as ecological imperatives to conserve wildlife by permitting only certain hunting techniques, tools, times and behaviours. Laws of course are in large part institutions based on what is considered acceptable conduct. At the intersection of the legal parameters expressed in these laws we find what could typically be called ethical hunting conduct. Still, laws may not always make explicit the duty to act as ethically as one should and while they are a mandatory baseline for conduct, at times we should treat them as a starting point for ethics.

Where discussions around hunting ethics trip-up is in the all too common conflation of ethics with ‘sportsmanship’ or the perceived difficulty of a hunt. We often tend to think of a more challenging hunt as being in some way more ethical. I feel that this is to misconstrue the notion of ethics. I have no doubt that a wilderness backpack hunt is more challenging for the hunter, but to claim that this hunter is more ‘ethical’ than one who chooses to wait for game in a blind overlooking an oat field is, in my opinion, more a matter of one-upmanship. It’s a claim to being a hunter of more skill, not necessarily more ethical. I would not argue that for a deer hunter armed with a traditional stick-bow to be consistently successful she must employ more skill than one who prefers to spot deer from her truck, sneak to a nearby rest and shoot it. But is this a question of ethics, or a question of who possesses superior hunting skills? If the four broad criteria above are met, then I believe each example is as ethical as the other. Similarly, Theodore Vitali argues that ‘Fair Chase’ should entail hunting in such a way as to benefit the broader community and the hunter him or herself. ‘Fair chase’ should describe conscientious, reflective hunting, not a claim to ethics by virtue of a hunt’s difficulty or danger.

Aristotle advocated that we live virtuously and by hunting with some consideration, care and forethought for the above categories we are, in my opinion, hunting ethically; be it with a ‘beanfield rifle’ over cultivated lands or with a homemade long-bow deep in the back county.

© Brian Joubert


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your comments on the muddling of ethics and sportsmanship are timely for me as I've been having a muddled debate with myself over ground swatting, the practice of shooting a bird on the ground with a shotgun. Among wingshooters, it's a practice that is generally looked down upon as unsporting - the bird has almost no chance of escape - and thereby unethical. As I immersed myself in grouse hunting, I quickly adopted that same attitude and was glad to turn my nose up at the very thought of ground swatting and those who hunted in that manner. But I’m no longer so sure. Obviously, it takes superior skill to shoot a bird on the wing, but would it not be more ethical to shoot it on the ground as one would be taking no unnecessary chance of only slightly injuring the bird and potentially losing it to a slow, wasteful death in the woods somewhere? On the other hand, it seems wrong to argue that I’m acting more ethically by affording the bird with no opportunity to escape. That’s not fair and it seems that there should be an element of fairness in one’s hunting ethic, which, I think, is generally the purpose of choosing to make the hunt more difficult on oneself. Yet, given that greater challenges leave room for greater mistakes, making the hunt more difficult seems at odds with the notion of minimizing the suffering in prey animals. I told you it was muddled!

  2. Anthony,
    You provide some very good food for thought. I do agree with the notion of the prey having a chance, I just can’t put my finger on how ‘difficult’ this needs to be in order to be ethical (I do find canned hunts distasteful).

    Your example of the ground swatting is an interesting conundrum. I am also of the school of wing-shots i.e. shooting a sitting bird is ‘inappropriate’ (well I have shot a couple ostriches – wing shooting was not an option!). It seems that this is culturally defined as well. Its acceptable, and the norm, to shooting grounded turkeys for example. It seems quite common to ground swat ruffies or spruce grouse when in thick bush (especially without a dog) and it also seems to many to the norm when hunting them, although you could no doubt give me far better experiential info on that!

  3. Brian, I'm always grateful to see public discussions on this topic. As I read through your points, it struck me that the main tenets are not unlike what we observe in the field as conscientious wildlife photographers or wildlife emissaries. The primary difference, of course, is the outcome to the animal. As far as environmental impact, however, I couldn't agree more. I'm as critical of fellow photographers as I am sometimes of the negligent hunters I see in the field.

    There needs to be much greater proliferation of these ideas in general -- to offset what seems to have become a strange entitlement by the general public. I can't tell you how many times I encounter people who seem to think that wild animals are there for their use or amusement, without much thought to how our presence and behavior interferes with their own natural process. So, thanks for the great post and for adding to the long tail of this necessary debate.

  4. Brian, I think that's an excellent summary. I would neither add to your list nor subtract from it.

    Makes for a really dull comment, doesn't it? I sure hope I disagree with you next time.

  5. Ingrid,
    Thank you for your thoughts - despite disgreeing on the 'hunting' part of the debate I think we share much common ground on the issues concerning conservation and environmental perceptions. Ironically even in viriolic debates with agressive anti-hunters I am struck with how both sides have a committment to overall animal welfare and net positive effects on the environment.

    Tamar - thanks for your views. I am sure I'll manage to write something disagreable one of these days!