Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Old Business: Cheney's Hunting Accident

I am still surprised at the people who are claiming that it is not Cheney's fault that he shot somebody.

Here is the rule: A hunter is NOT supposed to presume that his shot is safe unless he has reason to believe otherwise. A hunter has an obligation to presume that his shot is NOT safe unless he has reason to believe otherwise.

When Whittington stayed back to look for a bird that had been shot, Cheney should have had in his mind, "Shooting in that direction is off limits until I see Mr. Whittington again and I know where he is at." He should have mapped out in his mind those areas in which it was safe to shoot, and those in which it was not safe to shoot. If he could not identify a direction in which he should not shoot because Whittington was over there somewhere, then he should not have been shooting in any direction.

These are the rules for a responsible hunter.

The crime of shooting a fellow hunter is bad enough. Yet, Cheney's worse crime is not accepting this primary rule of responsibility. He wants to shift the blame onto others.

My concern continues to be the issue of moral responsibility. It continues to be the message given to hunters (particularly young hunters) across the country about how a responsible hunter conducts his affairs. Shooting at whatever target presents himself and blaming others if they get hit is not a good message. It is not evidence of moral responsibility.

I thought that personal moral responsibility was supposed to be a major point of strength for conservatives. Liberals are the ones who are supposed to be soft on the issue of responsibility -- blaming others (society, poor parenting, poverty) for the acts of the individual.

Here, we see that this Conservative rule of individual responsibility goes out the window the instant that a Conservative actually has to accept responsibility for wrongdoing.

Do not get me wrong -- I do not accept the 'liberal' view on this issue. These essays are very much in the tradition of individuals accepting moral responsibility for their actions. I do not care whether people who share this view call themselves 'liberal' or 'conservative' -- though I have tended to find more allies among conservatives than liberals.

If one is an advocate of individual responsibility, one has reason to be concerned that Cheney and his supporters have spent the last three days now that contradicts this concern. They are teaching people to deny responsibility for their actions, even when they are easily and clearly in the wrong.

As I have said before, the hunting accident itself is not much of a story. However, somebody with an interest in morality has reason to pay attention to the message that the Vice President and his supporters are saying about this very clear-cut case, where the person who pulls the trigger has the obligation to make sure that he does no harm to others.

New Business: The Morality of Hunting

I mentioned yesterday that I started hunting when I was 12, as any boy who grew up in mainstream Montana culture would.

When I was 14, I killed my first animal. That was the last time I went hunting.

I did not actually kill it. I shot it, and it went down. Then my uncle George and I (and one other person, I do not remember who) went looking for my victim. We found the animal pulling itself along by its front feet, dragging its useless back feet behind it. I had shot it in the middle of the back, breaking its spine. My uncle George took a knife and cut the deer's throat.

That was it for me. I would never hunt again. I also do not fish. I cannot even handle the thought of inflicting that much pain on another creature.

Morality and Personal Sentiment

However, I object to the practice of using personal sentiments to decide moral issues. I do not stewed tomatoes; I cannot stand to eat them. Yet, this gives me no basis for inferring that it is wrong to eat stewed tomatoes. The logical inference from, "I like" and "I dislike" to "is wrong" and "is not wrong" is simply not valid. People who make this logical leap are making the false assertion that others have an obligation to do that which pleases them, and an obligation to refrain from doing that which displeases them. There are no such obligations in the real world.

In addition, as I have mentioned in previous blog entries, history is filled with examples of people who felt no moral twinge whatsoever while committing the worst atrocities. From slavery to genocide to inquisitions to suicide bombings to the burning of 'witches', we can rest assured that almost all of the people who engaged in these activities measured their emotional reactions and found these activities among the actions they liked most. This alone should give us reason to reject the idea that right and wrong is associated with the likes and dislikes of the person making the judgment.

The Fate of Wild Animals

Instead, I argue that moral judgment has little to do with the agent's likes and dislikes. It has to do with the tendency of a sentiment to benefit or harm people generally, which is substantially independent of its effects on the sentiments of the person making that judgment. On this measure the person willing to embrace slavery, inquisitions, and the burning of witches is somebody with a tendency to harm others, not to help them. In the same way, individuals willing to embrace the torture and abuse of prisoners, an executive with unlimited power, and bans on homosexual marriage are also people disposed to harm others.

Applying these principles to the ritual of hunting, we can easily see the suffering done to the animals. Few shots are clean kills where the animal is instantly killed. Most shots rip through flesh, leaving the animal alive and suffering. The death of my first and last hunting victim was not the only gruesome death that I witnessed. Plus, there were the animals that were hit, wounded, but that got away.

Yet, against this I have to ask if the animals would fare better in the wild if the hunters were not there. Certainly, the natural predators that take out these animals are not going to show them any kindness. Wolves and cougars are not known for being particularly merciful. An antelope bounding across the plane breaks a leg in a gopher hole and lays there, injured, until it dies. An animal gets a cavity that abscesses. The infection enters its brain. They are subject to as many diseases as humans are, and they have nobody to go to for care.

I have sometimes wondered; when whales die, do they drown? Do they struggle to hold their breath while frantically trying to get to the surface to breathe, and sometimes fail? I think about this while remembering how it felt when classmates held me under water until I could hold my breath no more.

The short question is: If I claim that my neighbor should not go hunting, am I doing the animals any favors? If the animals generally obtain no benefit, then it is hard to argue that there exists a reason for me to prevent my fellow humans from hunting. What would that reason be?

"Natural" Does Not Mean "Right"

Anybody who would interpret this as a claim that whatever happens in nature (whatever is ‘natural’ in this sense) is intrinsically good, or that whatever animals do to one another (like predator animals hunt) humans may also permissibly do, would be mistaken. Male lions kill all the cubs the instant they take over a new pride. This can hardly be used as an argument for a honeymoon ritual in which a woman's new husband slaughters her children to make room in the house for his own children.

My argument is not, 'animals hunt; therefore it is permissible for humans to hunt.” That type of argument would be absurd.

My argument is that preventing animals from hunting (including human animals) would do the prey animals little if any good; therefore, there is little if any moral worth in preventing animals (including human animals) from hunting. If there is an argument to be made for preventing animals (including human animals) from hunting on the basis of the effect that hunting has on the prey animals, then we have as much or more of an obligation to prevent non-human prey animals from hunting compared to preventing human animals from hunting.

An Unwillingness to Do Harm

However, there is a second argument against hunting that deserves mention. It centers on the question, “Would an aversion to hunting make us any safer?”

Throughout this blog, I have defended the rules of morality by comparing them to the wisdom of putting smoke detectors in one's home. It is prudent, even for an atheist, to take those steps that would keep himself and those he cares about safe from harm. Establishing and maintaining moral institutions, like installing smoke detectors, is a useful way for a person to keep himself and those he cares about safe.

It is reasonable to believe that a community of people with a stronger aversion to harming other creatures (including animals) would be a safer community. On the other hand, a community of people who can inflict suffering on other creatures without a twinge of conscience would tend to be more dangerous. We make our communities safer for ourselves and those we care about to the degree that we create communities of people who are averse to causing harm to others.

However, we must accept the real world as it is, and not design our institutions for a world that does not exist. A community of individuals who are too reluctant to do harm to others is vulnerable. There will always be people who are not so reluctant to harm others. A community needs soldiers and police to protect it from such people. Soldiers and police cannot be so reluctant to do harm to others that they cannot defend that community.

It is a valid point that a society with people who know how to handle weapons, who have been trained to handle them responsibly, and who actually have some experience using them, gives potential aggressors something to worry about.


Ultimately, on the issue of hunting, I take the same position that I take on physician-assisted suicides. I would like to see different communities adopt different standards, so that the rest of us can get a better idea of what actually works.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with hunting. The suffering that hunting inflicts on prey animals gives us just as much or more reason to prevent predatory animals from hunting as it gives us to prevent humans from hunting. Anybody who treats these two types of cases differently is imagining a moral difference where none exists.

Yet, perhaps a society of individuals who strongly dislike hunting would be a community of kinder individuals that are less likely to do harm to each other. Or, perhaps, they would be vulnerable to the aggression of those who do not learn these lessons and who still seek to do harm.


Alonzo Fyfe said...


The bird is flying only 5' off of the ground.

Anonymous said...

You seem to think that the only moral problem with killing an animal is that the vicitm suffers before dying.