Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ethics versus Preferences

Some of the recent discussion on this and other blogs has reminded me of the need to carefully distinguish ethical or moral values from other, non-moral values. Non-moral values can include aesthetic values, or economic values.

The following is the text of an article I originally published in the IHEA journal that explores some of the differences between ethical values and non-moral aesthetic values as these pertain to recreational hunting. Perhaps this can help further the dialogue a bit. thanks for reading.


Ethics versus Preferences

When I give lectures on the topic of hunting, I find that there is a need to distinguish between hunting ethics and hunting aesthetics, or between ethics and preferences. Perhaps due to our underdeveloped understanding of ethics, most people today who think about hunting tend to lump all value questions together under the heading “ethics,” without regard for whether that classification is accurate or not. Most of what passes for “hunting ethics” today is really hunting aesthetics. I believe that when hunters speak of a “right way” or a “wrong way” to hunt, they generally mean something more like “the way I like to hunt” versus “the way you like to hunt.” (We see this in current disputes about the use of antique muzzleloader rifles versus modern inline muzzleloaders; about hunting with hounds versus dogless stalking; or about the merits of compound bows, recurved bows, longbows, and crossbows.)

Aside from hunter safety and the issue of killing animals cleanly, quickly, and humanely, there are very few ethical issues involved in how the practice of hunting is conducted. Hunters and anti-hunters need to be made more aware of this as well. Much anti-hunting legislation that has been passed so far, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has regulated essentially aesthetic aspects of the hunt: the practice of hunting over bait, the use of one type of technology over another, or the hunting of game with hounds. This is a bit like legislating one's preference for vanilla ice cream. If hunters and anti-hunters were more aware of the essentially aesthetic nature of these various hunting practices, I hazard the guess that there would probably be far less eagerness to regulate or ban certain forms of hunting on the part of either hunters or anti-hunters.

Examples Illustrating Hunting "Ethics" versus Hunting "Preferences"

There is a difference between the “morality of hunting” and what many hunters refer to as “the ethics of hunting” (for an example of the latter, see e.g., Posewitz 1994) The first involves the moral discussion of the rightness or wrongness of hunting in general, the latter involves the ethics of a specific hunting practice. The morality of hunting covers all forms of hunting, each with its own individual set of traditions, unique customs, and particular “ethics of practice.” In contrast, what most hunters think of as the “ethics of hunting” generally refers to the specific rules that govern a particular form or genre of hunting, or one might think in philosophical terms of different styles of hunting. Each style, genre, or form of hunting has a loyal following and, usually, an internally consistent set of ethical and aesthetic standards that typify the form.

I generally hesitate to weigh in on questions of “hunting ethics,” which usually involve more aesthetic than ethical issues. One or two examples may illustrate the point. Shooting ducks on the wing is one case: true devotees of duck hunting insist upon the necessity of a “rule” to shoot ducks only on “the wing,” i.e. in the air, and not while they are at rest on the water. The phrase “sitting duck” captures the essence of unsporting practice—the shooting at any target that is not “fair game.” And yet, shooting a duck on the water may be a far more deadly shot, more likely to kill the bird cleanly, more guaranteed to put a bird “in the bag” than an ethically riskier shot at a duck flying straightaway at a high speed over forty yards distant. “Potting” ducks (as in killing a duck for the pot, i.e. as food) on the water in the latter case is simply a violation of the aesthetic norms that make duck hunting, duck hunting. The question of how ducks are shot during the course of duck hunting is thus largely (not entirely) an aesthetic issue and not an ethical one at all. This distinction is often misunderstood by hunters as well as by anti-hunters.

Another example may cement the point. The practice of “baiting” game animals is constantly debated among hunters as a question of “hunting ethics.” (I will ignore for the moment concerns about CWD and the like.) Critics say that baiting is too easy and that it reduces the amount of effort and skills needed to successfully hunt game animals such as deer, bear, or moose. Practitioners of the art of baiting typically respond, “Don't knock it unless you've tried it.” Aside from the moral issues surrounding the vice of laziness and related moral concerns about the lack of human character such a vice implies, baiting does not seem to be an “ethical” issue per se as much as it is an aesthetic issue. Let me explain.

In northern Wisconsin there is at least one individual that I know of who begins his daily baiting of deer at least two months before the beginning of deer season. Reasoning that he wants the deer to show up at his stand in the woods when he is there, he goes out to the woods twice a day: once in the morning to lay out his spread of corn, apples, sugar beets, and whatever else he uses to attract deer to his location, and then once again in the evening to take it all away. That's two trips a day, for two months: or 120 trips to the woods, all in the hopes that the deer become habituated to visiting his chosen site only in daylight (legal shooting) hours. During the two months of baiting, this individual also occasionally climbs in his tree stand over the bait pile for the pleasure of simply watching the deer that come by. His enjoyment of deer hunting is thus extended considerably in this way, and during the time period when he is simply a wildlife watcher certainly does not involve killing in any way. All of this is for the privilege of being able to select his own venison, “on the hoof” so to speak, come opening day.

Another deer hunter hunts his own land and sits under apple trees that the previous owners planted some seventy-five to a hundred years earlier. He shoots and kills the first deer that comes along on opening day.

Who is to say which hunter has the richer, more authentic hunting experience? If the primary objection against the practice of “baiting” is that it is too easy and requires little or no effort, then certainly the Wisconsin deer hunter has put far more effort into killing his deer than has his counterpart who has merely staked out his deer stand on opening day and rather opportunistically “hunted” the deer he knows beforehand will frequent his apple trees.

In the case of the habitual deer baiter, what outsiders would criticize as unfair advantage and unsporting practice actually contributes to a year round interest in deer. The deer baiter is probably more of a “hunter-naturalist” or “nature hunter” than most hunters. His shot at close range on opening day is almost assured of being a well-aimed, carefully selected, and quickly killing clean shot.

The second hunter may hunt only deer; and only hunt once a year. His hunting experience lasts approximately an hour, or two at the most, among the apple trees on opening day. He may not give much thought to nature, to deer biology, to the wind or the vagaries of scent, or to much else. (Perhaps he is a college professor who is in a hurry to get back into the office for a 9:30 appointment with a student advisee.) Nonetheless, his shot at close range on opening day is almost equally assured of being a well-aimed, carefully sighted, and quickly killing clean shot.

And yet at the moment of the kill, each of these two individuals may feel that pang of remorse: that momentary sense of pity and fear, of attraction and repulsion at what they have done—regret for having killed, but gladness for having done it well. That emotional response may in fact be partly what drives them each year to make the effort that they do make, to get up well before dawn on opening day and to go afield in pursuit of killing a deer. Each individual experiences the hunt in a different way. Each individual takes care to ensure that there is a high probability of killing the animal almost instantly if and when the opportunity to shoot presents itself.

Where these two hunters' experience differs is in the respective style or aesthetics of their hunts, not in the ethics of their hunts. “Ethics” generally is a term that is chronically misused in the popular hunting press. Each hunter follows his own ritual way of preparing for the hunt; each hunter conscientiously minimizes the chances of wounding and losing a deer; and each hunter enjoys the hunt in his own fashion. “Baiting” of game animals seems to attract the same type of criticisms that the potting of sitting ducks does, and for similar reasons. But I think it important to recognize that each form is simply a variation on a theme: the musical metaphor is apt.


For these and other reasons I believe that for the most part, the state and other people should stay out of these hunters' business. Each hunter experiences the hunt in his own idiosyncratic and highly personal way. Assuming the hunter is respecting the laws designed to protect game populations and human life and property, each hunter acts ethically. Neither hunter is hurting anyone else. (The deer, if well shot, certainly feels almost nothing.) Each hunter's choices, whether hunting over bait or hunting on one's own land, simply implies different aesthetic preferences, and little else. I cannot speak for either hunter's experience, nor would I want to impose my own idiosyncratic hunting values and force my aesthetic preferences on another hunter. I may choose to employ my full powers of aesthetic suasion to convert either or both hunters over to my way of thinking, but that's as far as my legitimate authority in either hunter's affairs should extend. In other words, as a matter of concern for social or governmental intrusion, hunting should be virtually “off the radar screen” for the moral or aesthetic police.

And as a group, hunters are their own worst enemy when it comes to pointing fingers at each other and saying, “My way is better than your way; so let's ban your way.” Such arguments are often made by hunters who profess to wanting simply “to clean up hunting's image.” In reality, such well-intended efforts by hunters may simply be hastening hunting's demise.


orig pub info:
Tantillo, James A. (2004) "Ethics Versus Preferences." Hunting and Shooting Sports Education Journal 4(1): 39-40, 47.


  1. p.s. the biographical blurb that usually goes along with this article is perhaps more to the point? for what it's worth:

    "James A. Tantillo teaches ethics and environmental philosophy at Cornell University. A grouse hunting purist, Jim will generally argue until he is blue in the face that the One, True, Correct Way to Hunt Grouse is with a 16 gauge Parker double gun over the staunch point of a well trained English setter. In the spirit of political toleration, however, he also argues until he is equally blue in the face that his retriever and spaniel owning friends be permitted to hunt grouse legally as they see fit, despite their aesthetically misguided preferences for flushing dogs or 12 gauge autoloaders! "

  2. I really like this piece, Jim, just as I did the first time I read it. Though I might disagree with your arguments in some extreme instances, overall I believe you're right on the mark.

    There is, I think, still plenty of important hunting ethics education to be done, focused not on aesthetics but on respecting animals and, as you say, killing "cleanly, quickly, and humanely."

  3. What an excellent and intriguing piece of writing.

    I do think there is a definitely misuse of the phrases hunting ethics/hunting aeshetics. I don't think any legislation should impose "ethical" regulations upon me, when really most of hunting legislation out there is forcing me to abide by someone's hunting aeshetics, not ethics.

    And who I am to impose my way of hunting on someone else, or tell them what they're "ethics" are. That isn't my place, and ultimately, as you stated above, will only help to hurt our hunting heritage; it will certainly not help us hunters to draw a dividing line in the sand based on crossbows vs. longbows, or muzzleloaders vs. shotguns.

    The way I see it - if you're hunting within the law, and doing everything you possibly can to ensure a quick, humane kill, then I have no problem with whatever type of style of hunting you choose.......even if it isn't the way I choose to hunt.

  4. I like where you took this one. And the bio is equally dead-on. Nicely done!

    I've hunted from one coast to the other in this country, and I've seen a lot of different hunting methods and hunted with a lot of different hunters. I've guided and hunted on high fence ranches, as well as humping over miles of Rocky Mountain terrain in pursuit of elk. And one thing I've found is that most of these guys, no matter what their preferred methods, enjoy the hunt and value the experience. Is it the way we'd all prefer to hunt? Of course not. I like my pizza with canadian bacon, pineapple, and jalapeno peppers. I think pepperoni sucks. But if you like it hey, enjoy your pizza.

    Of course the discussion goes a little deeper than this, but in a nutshell... well, how deep should we really be digging anyway?

  5. "...well, how deep should we really be digging anyway?"
    Phillip, As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "I don't give a fig for simplicity, but I would give anything for simplicity on the other side of complexity." (or something like that).
    This idea of exploring the complexity and getting to the root is what drives my work at Orion and this blog. So I think we should dig as deep as we can, expose as much as we can then work with it until we get "to the other side of complexity".
    Thanks to everyone who is helping with this!

  6. Simplify, simplify, simplify...

    I'm not the world's biggest Thoreau fan, but he occasionally made some pretty good points. If we get too wrapped up in the details, we lose track of what's really important. It's a risk we take whenever we start to dive too deeply into philosophical issues.

    Of course, from the academic perspective, the exploration of these concepts of ethics, morals, and Fair Chase do keep things interesting, and they turn up some pretty good topics of conversation and even debate. But for the general world, I wonder if we haven't already lost track of the real point of the discussion.

    Should it be about defining a code of behavior for all hunters to follow, or simply about introspection? By chipping away until we expose the very paragon of hunting virtue, do we lessen the experience or the values of all others?

    At what point do we separate the philosophical from the practical? Where does the discussion become too lofty for the "unwashed masses"? A little knowledge is, certainly, a dangerous thing.

    The noble savage was always a myth. If we dig deeply enough, I think we'll find the same about the "perfect" hunter. Is there value in exposing this reality? What is the risk in tearing down the facade of the "moral hunter"?

  7. A fictional memoir about a Thanksgiving Day series of incidents. Involved are three generations of a family who own the motel, trailer park guests, a Bible-focused grandfather, an embarrassed father, and the narrator's girlfriend.