Hunting: how ethical is it?

by frankbeswick

Hunting was once the mainstay of the human economy, but now it is an increasingly fringe activity and there is a need for there to be a clear ethic for hunters.

The killing of Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion shot by a crossbow hunter as a trophy killing, has aroused ire among many in the world. Scientists lament the loss of one of their research subjects whom they had studied over the years, but others, including scientists, are appalled that a loved creature should be shot merely to adorn a trophy cabinet. Furthermore, the knowledge that the wounded animal lingered in dying has aroused horror in sensitive people around the world. So what is the right view of hunting? Is it legitimate to hunt, if so when and how?

Image courtesy of Adamfichna


Humans have an innate moral sense, while in some people it is suppressed by poor upbringing or desensitized by a corrupt lifestyle, we generally have a feeling when something wrong has occurred, and this is the case with the shooting of the Zimbabwean lion, Cecil. The hunter states that he did not know the full facts of the case before shooting, and I will pass no comment on the truth or otherwise of this assertion, but it is clear that his guides did know. So what tells us that what happened was wrong? 

Let's take the case of a stone age hunter gatherer, and there are still people who follow this lifestyle today, though they are few in number.He went and killed for meat without which he and his family would perish. But the hunter used as much of the animal as possible, so none was wasted. The bones were for tools, the skin for clothes, and the sinews were for twine. Moreover, the hunters revered the animals that they slew, and they honoured their spirits. The cave paintings of Europe show celebrations of the hunt, a cultus that continued over thousands of years. Who can say that these people were wrong? Theirs was a good reason to hunt and kill, it was integral to the cycle of life and death that characterizes nature, of which we are all part.

Now take Cecil's case. He was shot by a man who did not need his meat for food, a dentist rich enough to pay thousands for the dubious honour of killing a lion, but merely wanted the excitement and the trophy that could be gained, so Cecil's body was left to rot. The life of any creature is a very precious thing, not to be wasted. Sometimes we must kill, but killing for pleasure of any kind is absolutely immoral, for a life lived is more precious than a life ended. There must be a good reason to kill, and pleasure is a triviality compared to the value of life. A living creature is a source of joy, certainly to many in this case who respected, even loved, the lion. 

Worse, the killing was slow, as it was done with an unsuitable weapon, a crossbow. This is a very accurate weapon, but its impact is not as great as that of a bullet, so the death is slow and painful. Cecil needed to be tracked through fourteen hours of pain before a rifle bullet finished him off. If you must kill an animal, do it quickly and as painlessly as possible. 

To kill for a trophy is an abomination. To have pride in killing is to boost the ego, the false self that swells as another is diminished. and what is more diminishing to the other than death, and that is the ultimate ego-swelling act, and a grave act of selfishness. The lion's head mounted on the wall of such a killer should not be a source of pride, but should stand to condemn him for his pointless slaying. 

Hunting where there is something of a case.

This is currently an issue in Britain. The traditional fox hunt was severely curtailed by a previous Labour government, but the present government has tried unsuccessfully to weaken the ban. The state of affairs is that hunters can pursue a fox on horseback with a hounds, but can only use two hounds in the chase and must despatch the fox quickly by shotgun. 

Foxes can be a problem for farmers, especially for chicken keepers, and they do take weaker lambs some time. Foxes can wreak havoc in a hen house and seem to kill for pleasure, so they are not cuties, so there is certainly a case for farmers being able to shoot predatory foxes, but the problem is that the chase is cruel. If you have to kill a fox, it should be when it is raiding your hens. But the idea of chasing it across fields, doing damage in the process, is morally dubious, for it subjects the animal to prolonged fear. The people doing the hunting are not those who are losing chickens, but those rich enough to have horses and time to spare. This is killing merely for excitement with a justification extrinsic to their own purposes. 

There is also the simple problem that the foxes have already won. By moving to the towns they have entered a zone where traditional fox hunting is impossible, and there they have thrived and even found human friends. The best that traditional hunting can do is  keep them under control in the country, but the fox reservoir in towns will continue to  refill the depleted country population. 

Sometimes humans need a creature to be culled, if its numbers are growing beyond sustainable levels, and there is a case for this. But recently there was a bad case for culling, when badgers were thought to be responsible for the spread of bovine tuberculosis to cattle in parts of Britain. The cull went wrong, and badgers merely distributed to different areas. Innoculation of cattle, which is quite possible, seems to be a better bet than culling. 

I am not against culling when necessary, but when culling is simply the cheaper option then it is not right. Furthermore, when culling the animal carcasses should be used rather than dumped. The image of people clubbing seals to death and leaving the corpses is unacceptable. If you are having to kill, use the whole animal. 

When hunting is acceptable

There are parts of the world where hunting is useful. In Britain some people shoot grouse and red deer. While animal rights activists oppose all hunting,certain estates in moorland and mountain areas find that deer and grouse are economically useful products, and the products are eaten. However, there has been some criticism of the use of English moorlands for grouse shooting, as some suggest that there are ecologically more productive ways of using them. Whatever the motives of the rich men and women who pay to shoot deer and grouse, there is an economic reason for the shooting, and numbers need to be cut down as they can reach levels beyond what the environment can handle Wildfowling is still practised, but in Britain there are strict gun controls and you need to do it in season under licence. 

In parts of the world where there are large forests, such as parts of the USA and Norway,  hunting is an important source of food, and in Europe wild boar hunting is common, to keep down the numbers of what can be a dangerous pest. This is going to have to happen in Britain soon, as wild boar numbers are rising and they are becoming nuisances in certain areas. 

The farmer shooting the rabbits that ravage his crops and the poor man  hunting a rabbit are hunting for genuine reasons, so there can be no well-placed criticism of them. Sometimes vermin must be hunted to protect humans and their food sources. It is the person who kills for a poor reason who deserves criticism.

A Set of Rules.

What do good people do, was a question once asked about hunting and killing animals. My reply is 

Good people kill,  for mercy occasionally

                                 for defence sometimes

                                 for food when necessary

                                But for pleasure never.

As  basic rule, only take an animal's life when you are defending yourself or your health, and the health of those who are near to you, or when you are going to eat it. Never kill an animal only for its skin or fur, for that is a wasteful abomination. Vermin, such as rats, may be killed to protect human health; and pests may be killed to protect food sources. Animals dangerous to humans may be killed to protect our lives, such as wild dogs that may be rabid. If you must kill, do it as quickly and as painlessly as possible, for a lingering death should be the fate of no beast. It is legitimate to kill an animal to put it down painlessly if it is sick. 

However, the idea of killing for pride or pleasure is disgraceful and is never a legitimate reason to kill. I personally will not kill an insect without good reason, but I kill some insects and slugs  to protect my crops.

The Bhagavad Gita advises one going to war that he eschews the fruits of action, so he may kill as is  necessary, but he must never enjoy the act. This is a useful moral teaching that can be shared by all faiths. 

Updated: 08/01/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/11/2016

Thanks Katie, I always appreciate your comments.

katiem2 on 11/11/2016

We are all so different. I have always, since a small child, felt the killing of any animal for food or not is horrific. I have a very deep connection to animals, and coil at the thought or knowledge of harm. Great piece, glad to have found it.

frankbeswick on 10/19/2015

I am in agreement with what you have said. Personally, I would seek a use even for the antlers, as I believe that you should always use as much of the animal as possible and never waste. Some artists or crafts people can find a use for them. I was completely horrified by the big game hunter who paid to shoot the largest elephant in an African reserve. This was a mere ego boosting exercise and therefore gravely immoral.

jptanabe on 10/18/2015

Excellent discussion of the ethics of hunting. Where I live we have a large deer population, and accidents between deer and our vehicles are common. So we have a (short) hunting season without which I am sure we'd have far too many deer and even more accidents! It seems that we removed the natural predators of the deer, namely wolves. The result seems to be that we are now responsible to keep the deer population in check - by hunting. I've no desire to hunt, but I don't mind if others hunt responsibly and eat, or sell, the meat. And as far as I am concerned they can even hang the antlers on their wall if that makes them feel good (as long as the kill was humane and the meat eaten). But killing endangered species (big cats etc) for fun is quite a different story.

frankbeswick on 10/02/2015

This problem occurs with foraging as well, for several mushroom species in Britain are under threat.

blackspanielgallery on 10/02/2015

Still another problem with excessive hunting is depletion of species. How many species have we had to place on endangered lists? In this area many hunt ducks, geese, rabbit, deer, and squirrel, And have depleted populations so seasons and strict limits have had to be placed. and limits on many dwindling fish populations have been needed. This reflects taking of animals for sport and to the excess. If taken, it must be used.

frankbeswick on 08/01/2015

I was not singling you out when I spoke of the usage of the word we, but I was thinking of the moral horizon that is often implicit when using it. When some people use the term they think of only a narrow group of their own kind, but others use it in a broader sense.

Thanks for the information on bandicoots. They are not found in this country, for which I am thankful.

WriterArtist on 07/31/2015

Well - I should be careful of the subtle difference of the usage of we, I usually refer to the human race when I use "we".

My thinking is - the majority of us (human beings) are generous and kind. Correct me if I am wrong. I hope good virtues prevail, otherwise we are doomed. It is only few ruthless people who indulge in slaughtering animals for fun.

Bandicoots are big rats, I have seen plenty of them. They thrive in the drainage and are big nuisances. They can jump inside the house from the open windows and are hard to chase away. They also dig my garden and make big holes ruining the small plants I grow. They usually are in search of leftovers and make the surroundings filthy.

frankbeswick on 07/31/2015

You have hit on a vital point. When we use the word "we" do we mean only our own species or other species. The difference in usage matters, as if we mean our own species we exclude others, whereas if we include other animals we include them in our moral concern. The difference matters. It determines which animals we respect and which we don't.

You, Shradda, cannot understand how people can be so cruel as to kill for pleasure, that's because you are a kind and sensitive person. I will explain. The word that explains the evil is ego, the false self that swells by diminishing another. The ego is the pride that bloats by harming and diminishing. To kill another creature is to swell one's self esteem/pride. The trophy head on the wall boosts the ego of the shooter, but it is a false pride that is based on evil doing.

We have rats over here, but no bandicoots. Can you explain why they are a problem?

WriterArtist on 07/31/2015

Killing for fun and entertainment is unethical. I can understand killing for food but beyond that, it is lacking morality, it is unjust and wrong. I cannot understand how people can be so cruel.

Inflicting pain and torture to animals is equally condemnable. Poaching is another criminal activity that is going on for ages. It seems as the human race is ready to wipe out all flora and fauna from this beautiful planet.

There are some instances in which killing can be justified. You have rightly given such circumstances and examples where it is necessary to eliminate them. Rats and bandicoots are sources of diseases, so it is necessary to check their population. Similarly, cockroaches and mosquitoes are some other nuisances that mankind is trying to get rid of. I cannot imagine how getting rid of them can be a crime.

Nature balances the population of species in the eco-system where one species feeds on other. Disregarding this equation by poaching and erasing jungles that house animal habitats is a definite passport to humanity's elimination in the long course.

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