There has been an outbreak of moral indignation over pictures of self-avowed ‘hardcore huntress’ Larysa Switlyk posting pictures of her next to goat she had shot on Islay next to the caption “We hunted hard for a big one for two days and finally got on this group. Made a perfect 200 yard shot and dropped him.”
The Scottish Government has declared that the situation requires a review of the law to see if any changes or clarifications are needed. However, in amongst the very many messages which ranged from expletive-filled condemnation to expressions of total bafflement with her sense of pride in killing this animal, were a few messages that hinted that the moral certitude of the angry crowd was perhaps on shaky philosophical ground.
My own immediate reaction to the picture was similar to many of the others but the more I read the more I began to wonder if my and many others’ reaction was justified, so I thought I would read up on the moral underpinnings of hunting and see what the philosophy had to say. It seems that philosophers broadly identify three types of hunting which are distinguished by the purpose it’s meant to serve.
Defining What Hunting Is
The first refers to the hunting of animals to manage ecosystems. An example is the very goats our esteemed huntress shot which are culled every year. The argument goes like this. As they have no natural predators, the only way nature would regulate their populations would be through a cycle of population explosion (upon which they would eat everything) and then a population crash as large numbers starved to death in winter – a macabre cycle of ecological boom and bust. In this case, hunting individual goats is good for the population as a whole and for the wider ecosystem.
A second type relates to subsistence hunting, where hunted animals provide food and resources, usually for indigenous peoples living their traditional lifestyle. An example being the Hadza of Tanzania, who are described as the last culture on earth to live the traditional hunter-gatherer existence we all lived before some bright spark discovered the secret of domestication. Why chase your food around the savannah when you can get it to move in with you?
The third type of hunting they identify is sport or trophy hunting. This is all about the pleasure the hunter derives from the act of hunting itself. Now in the days before another bright spark invented photography that pleasure was expressed as the trophy on the hunter’s wall. Now it seems to be about posting a digital pic of the hunter and their recently deceased quarry.
The Moral Position
Many of those who object to hunting do so on the basis that it’s the intentional infliction of harm on an animal. Animals are sentient so it’s wrong to inflict harm on them by hunting and killing them. Whether a hunter’s goal is a healthy ecosystem, nutritious dinner or a personally fulfilling experience, the hunted animal experiences the same harm.
Now, this is where philosophy throws a spanner in the works. An objection based solely on harm could lead to slightly absurd positions If inflicting unwanted harm is wrong, then surely the source of the harm is irrelevant. A lion inflicts a lot of harm on a wildebeest when it kills it, so logically if you believe that it’s wrong to inflict harm then predation by animals poses a moral problem.
If sound, the objection based on harm would require its advocates to oppose all three types of hunting unless it can be shown that greater harm will befall the animal in question if it is not hunted – for example, if it will be doomed to slow winter starvation. Therefore harm needs to be qualified and the common way around this is to talk about inflicting necessary harm. Necessary could refer to nutritional or ecological need, which provides moral cover for subsistence hunting and for culling. But sport hunting cannot be defended this way. Lions need to hunt or they die whereas trophy hunters don’t.
So, philosophy says that if you object to hunting based on the position that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary harm, then hunting is only morally permissible if it’s necessary ecologically or for subsistence. Most humans these days don’t need to hunt to survive so trophy hunting becomes morally indefensible, based on the necessary harm objection.
There is also a second objection to trophy hunting in what it says about the moral character of an individual. The argument is that hunting for pleasure not only causes harm but it also reveals something reprehensible about your character. The act of taking pleasure from hunting is morally indefensible because of what it reveals about the person doing the act. Basically, you’re morally twisted if you take pleasure from killing an animal.