Duck Hunting Essays
Every year as daylight dwindles and trees go bare, debates arise over the morality of hunting. Hunters see the act of stalking and killing deer, ducks, moose and other quarry as humane, necessary and natural, and thus as ethical. Critics respond that hunting is a cruel and useless act that one should be ashamed to carry out.
As a nonhunter, I cannot say anything about what it feels like to shoot or trap an animal. But as a student of philosophy and ethics, I think philosophy can help us clarify, systematize and evaluate the arguments on both sides. And a better sense of the arguments can help us talk to people with whom we disagree.
Three rationales for hunting
One central question is why people choose to hunt. Environmental philosopher Gary Varner identifies three types of hunting: therapeutic, subsistence and sport. Each type is distinguished by the purpose it is meant to serve.
Therapeutic hunting involves intentionally killing wild animals in order to conserve another species or an entire ecosystem. In one example, Project Isabella, conservation groups hired marksmen to eradicate thousands of feral goats from several Galapagos islands between 1997 and 2006. The goats were overgrazing the islands, threatening the survival of endangered Galapagos tortoises and other species.
Subsistence hunting is intentionally killing wild animals to supply nourishment and material resources for humans. Agreements that allow Native American tribes to hunt whales are justified, in part, by the subsistence value the animals have for the people who hunt them.
In contrast, sport hunting refers to intentionally killing wild animals for enjoyment or fulfillment. Hunters who go after deer because they find the experience exhilarating, or because they want antlers to mount on the wall, are sport hunters.
These categories are not mutually exclusive. A hunter who stalks deer because he or she enjoys the experience and wants decorative antlers may also intend to consume the meat, make pants from the hide and help control local deer populations. The distinctions matter because objections to hunting can change depending on the type of hunting.
What bothers people about hunting: Harm, necessity and character
Critics often argue that hunting is immoral because it requires intentionally inflicting harm on innocent creatures. Even people who are not comfortable extending legal rights to beasts should acknowledge that many animals are sentient – that is, they have the capacity to suffer. If it is wrong to inflict unwanted pain and death on a sentient being, then it is wrong to hunt. I call this position “the objection from harm.”
If sound, the objection from harm would require 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. Whether a hunter’s goal is a healthy ecosystem, a nutritious dinner or a personally fulfilling experience, the hunted animal experiences the same harm.
But if inflicting unwanted harm is necessarily wrong, then the source of the harm is irrelevant. Logically, anyone who commits to this position should also oppose predation among animals. When a lion kills a gazelle, it causes as much unwanted harm to the gazelle as any hunter would – far more, in fact.
Few people are willing to go this far. Instead, many critics propose what I call the “objection from unnecessary harm”: it is bad when a hunter shoots a lion, but not when a lion mauls a gazelle, because the lion needs to kill to survive.
Today it is hard to argue that human hunting is strictly necessary in the same way that hunting is necessary for animals. The objection from necessary harm holds that hunting is morally permissible only if it is necessary for the hunter’s survival. “Necessary” could refer to nutritional or ecological need, which would provide moral cover for subsistence and therapeutic hunting. But sport hunting, almost by definition, cannot be defended this way.
Sport hunting also is vulnerable to another critique that I call “the objection from character.” This argument holds that an act is contemptible not only because of the harm it produces, but because of what it reveals about the actor. Many observers find the derivation of pleasure from hunting to be morally repugnant.
In 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer found this out after his African trophy hunt resulted in the death of Cecil the lion. Killing Cecil did no significant ecological damage, and even without human intervention, only one in eight male lions survives to adulthood. It would seem that disgust with Palmer was at least as much a reaction to the person he was perceived to be – someone who pays money to kill majestic creatures – as to the harm he had done.
The hunters I know don’t put much stock in “the objection from character.” First, they point out that one can kill without having hunted and hunt without having killed. Indeed, some unlucky hunters go season after season without taking an animal. Second, they tell me that when a kill does occur, they feel a somber union with and respect for the natural world, not pleasure. Nonetheless, on some level the sport hunter enjoys the experience, and this is the heart of the objection.
Is hunting natural?
In discussions about the morality of hunting, someone inevitably asserts that hunting is a natural activity since all preindustrial human societies engage in it to some degree, and therefore hunting can’t be immoral. But the concept of naturalness is unhelpful and ultimately irrelevant.
A very old moral idea, dating back to the Stoics of ancient Greece, urges us to strive to live in accordance with nature and do that which is natural. Belief in a connection between goodness and naturalness persists today in our use of the word “natural” to market products and lifestyles – often in highly misleading ways. Things that are natural are supposed to be good for us, but also morally good.
Setting aside the challenge of defining “nature” and “natural,” it is dangerous to assume that a thing is virtuous or morally permissible just because it is natural. HIV, earthquakes, Alzheimer’s disease and post-partum depression are all natural. And as The Onion has satirically noted, behaviors including rape, infanticide and the policy of might-makes-right are all present in the natural world.
There are many other moral questions associated with hunting. Does it matter whether hunters use bullets, arrows or snares? Is preserving a cultural tradition enough to justify hunting? And is it possible to oppose hunting while still eating farm-raised meat?
As a starting point, though, if you find yourself having one of these debates, first identify what kind of hunting you’re discussing. If your interlocutor objects to hunting, try to discover the basis for their objection. And I believe you should keep nature out of it.
Finally, try to argue with someone who takes a fundamentally different view. Confirmation bias – the unintentional act of confirming the beliefs we already have – is hard to overcome. The only antidote I know of is rational discourse with people whose confirmation bias runs contrary to my own.
Huge congratulations to GFS contributor Michael R. Shea, whose essay “Duck Hunting: The Born Again” was chosen as a finalist for Creative Nonfiction’s Spring 2011 Food Issue. Enjoy Mike’s essay and give him a pat on the back in the comments.
Nearly all hunters are raised hunters. Fathers generally pass it on to sons and daughters. There is such a thing as the camo-clad gun-toting mother, especially in the South, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
My father passed on many things to me—Yankees fandom, lactose intolerance—but not hunting. My mother wouldn’t even allow toy guns in the house. But my dad took me fishing, and every April we’d uncover the 14-foot aluminum bass boat and float the Thames in Norwich, Connecticut. The big ocean schools of striped bass worked upriver to spawn and we worked down with rubber worms and bucktail jigs.
After sounding the water for an hour, sometimes two, sometimes three, we’d hit fish and holler like prospectors on gold. Cast after cast we’d haul in little strippers. Ten, fifteen, twenty fish were not uncommon. It was almost like hatchery fishing—those big deep-water schools penned in by the rocky river edge.
If my sister was along, we’d eat Dunkin’ Donuts. We’d lean over the side of the boat, cleaning off fish hands in the cold river water, then push chocolate-filled powder bombs into our grubby mouths, washing them down with a thermos of Mom’s hot chocolate. In my family, fishing stands as one of our happiest memories. To this day a photograph of my sister hangs on my parents’ refrigerator—blond hair tousled, nose red from the spring wind. She’s holding a little striped bass, making a kissy face, and the fish is kissing back.
The Question of Hunting
Twenty years later, I found myself writing occasional fishing stories for a little newspaper in California. On one trip out of Bodega Bay the salmon were sparse, but we managed to put some rockfish on ice. It was an assorted cast of characters on that 34-foot King Cat—a charter trip organized by my barber. On the slow ride back to the dock, one of the guys got talking about hunting. Bob had been a little hostile the whole trip, firing jabs at me about the liberal media and the like. A self-described redneck, he mourned the good old days when the sports page ran deer reports and pictures of the locals’ elk hunts in Colorado.
“Why doesn’t The Bee write about hunting anymore?” he finally came right out and asked. I didn’t know what to say. Something about blood sport? Something about cruelty? That would be ironic, sitting on a cooler of thirty dead fish. “Why don’t you take me hunting and I’ll write about it?” I shot back. At that point in time I had fired a gun exactly once in my entire life. He paused. I don’t know for sure, but when I think back on it, I see his tongue working over the black space in his smile where a tooth once was. “Okay,” he said. “I’m a hunter education instructor.”
I was 27 years old.
Every hunter I have ever met has started at 16 or earlier. I’m sure there are other late-bloomers out there, but I haven’t met them. Bob walked me and thirty other students through a week’s worth of gun safety, conservation and wilderness ethics in the back of a Modesto sporting goods store. He loaned me waders and an old camo jacket. He took me to his sportsmen’s club and showed me how to work the pump on his rusty Remington 870. When the waterfowl season opened that second Saturday in October, he sat me down next to him in his duck blind on a flooded cattle field not far from Los Banos, California. When the green-wing teal bombed into our little piece of marsh, we waited, waited, waited, then burst out of cover, guns blazing, muzzle flash breaking the dark morning air. The ducks kept on flying.
I learned quickly—and keep on learning—that killing wild animals is hard. People who haven’t tried it don’t believe it, but it’s true. They think the deck is stacked: shotgun, camouflage, decoys, dog. Magazines print information on flight patterns and some guys scout areas with GPS, trail-mounted cameras and other photo reconnaissance tools. But there’s no guarantee the birds will do today what they did yesterday. When the prey is wild the prey is hard to guess.
A Successful Duck Hunt
A successful duck hunt requires mountains of gear, good decoys and better land. The weather should be miserable. The colder the better. The darker the better. Light rain or snow is best, but I never got any snow on those early California hunts. Only when conditions are perfect, and by perfect I mean crappy, does the camo or the blind, the accuracy of your gun, or the stillness of the dog matter. The art is in the deception. And deception is hard to learn. Rarely does it all come together.
That first year I started hunting, I was in a blind in Gustine, California, at a high-dollar duck club, working on a newspaper story. A city councilman, his father and his son—three generations—crouched next to me in that blind. The air between us was thick with the kind of family sentiment that makes small-town newspaper editors salivate. We talked a lot about the days before developers discovered the Central Valley, the days when farms could be farms and nothing more. The boy, maybe 10 years old, shot his first duck that morning. Sentimental or not, the look on his face could warm a house.
We were all chatting about nothing in particular a few hours later when on my left in the far peripheral vision a duck showed up, moving fast and away. As soon as I saw it I was on my feet and as soon as I was on my feet the gun was on my shoulder and the gun went off. The bird waded up and splashed in the water, stone dead. “Nice shot!” the councilman yelled. The dog brought in a canvasback, a diving duck, with that distinct angular beak and a dark crimson head. It was the only can shot out of that blind all year—a trophy duck, fat and pretty. The kill was clean. Quick. I could hardly believe I did it. Everything had come together, without thought or meditation, and I was hooked.
It wasn’t the first duck I shot, nor the last, but it’s the one I remember best. I’m not religious—I’m not even “spiritual” in the New Age-y believe-your-own-thing-sense—but out there on the water, after hours of searching and finally cranking up those striped bass, or after hours of sitting still and finally seeing those wild birds appear…. Well, for me, it’s a kind of transcendence, a feeling of connectedness, that others might take away from a sunset or, perhaps, their first great love affair.
Nowadays, living in New York City, when my trips to the woods are few and far between—races to the woods really, for the early goose season, for the duck opener—I seek the outdoors. Even if no fish are caught, or no birds shot, it fills me up to just sit in the silence of a 5 a.m. sunrise, a gun on my knee, the dog watching the sky, waiting….
Read Part II of Mike’s story, where he translates his love of fishing and hunting into a quest to figure out the best way to cook 30 pounds of duck meat.
Guest Essays, Guest Postcalifornia, Duck hunting, fishing