Holier than thou? The hat fits, actually.

At John P. Boerschig Ranches, they ‘do have an organized Black Buck hunting package. This hunt is available at our Brackettville Ranch, which has excellent accommodations with all the comforts of home.’

Is it ethical to hunt feral pigs for fun? James Valentine thinks so.

He dislikes the idea of breeding blackbucks for hunting in a commercial hunting park. Or rather, as he put it, he doesn’t ‘get’ it. He invited hunters to ring in and explain the attraction. But of course no one was game to defend the blackbuck scheme; only a bunch of affable and reasonable sounding blokes pointing out that it’s fine to hunt pigs because they’re pests.

If I was hoping for some thoughtful teasing out of the ethical issues, I was disappointed. Evidently in a great hurry to stay friends with the affable, reasonable sounding blokes, he endorsed their hobby cheerfully, and seemed content that he’d identified the relevant ethical test. It’s moral to hunt pests. In fact he decided, though I suspect he was being facetious at this point, that it was also OK to hunt leopards, because it’s risky (leopards know how to sneak up on hunters from behind). They didn’t discuss hunting for food, though I’m confident that James would have approved of that too.

But it can’t be that simple. Suppose your dog has to be put down, and the vet begs you to let him take the poor creature out in the back yard and shoot him from an upstairs window. The dog had to die anyway, so why not use him for a little fun? Perhaps that one’s impossible to be objective about. Suppose instead that an entrepreneur wants to buy the strays from the pound and use them in a target shooting activity for paying customers. Everyone wins, don’t they? The rate-payers earn revenue, the entrepreneur earns an income, and the shooters have some fun. It would be important to set it up so that the dogs didn’t know they would be shot, or feel any pain, but that could be guaranteed to an acceptable level of certainty.

If you don’t find that idea as abhorrent as I do, read no further. I won’t convince you. Even so, perhaps you think the problem with the example is that shooting the dogs is unnecessary. Perhaps hunting is ethically justified when it’s the only way to kill animals that need to be killed. Well, suppose your cat is fatally wounded, but is still mobile and escapes into the scrub. The only way to put him out of his misery is to stalk and shoot him. There are two volunteers, both equally skilled at stalking and bringing down animals in the bush. One is a zoo-keeper who loves animals, and would hate shooting your cat, but knows it’s necessary; the other is a guy who just loves stalking and killing animals. Which will you choose?

But the pigs are not our pets, our friends, the hunter might protest. They are our enemies: it’s a war. Well, in the first place, it isn’t the pigs’ fault. They are not enemies in any morally relevant sense. Killers, on the other hand, will always demonise their victims as a way of easing their own consciences. Even if they were knowingly and wilfully invading our territory, when did the justice or necessity of war mean that killing the enemy was supposed to be fun?

Perhaps it depends on what we mean by fun. What if shooting things is fun only in the way that shooting clay pigeons is fun. It’s the test of skill that’s thrilling, the killing itself is distasteful. If that’s your only argument, I recommend clay pigeons or — if you want your prey to consciously elude you — paintball.

So what about shooting actual pigeons and ducks? Will I dare to be holier than thou on that question? Well, it’s the potential for pointless maiming that’s the main problem here. But even if a clean kill could be guaranteed in every instance, it could only be justified on the basis that birds are lower on the scale of sentience than dogs or pigs — that they are more like their clay counterparts than like higher mammals. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line, but it seems clear to me that it’s wrong to kill animals for fun, even if fun isn’t the principal motivation. For example, I wouldn’t even recruit kids to kill cane toads if I thought the particular kids would get a kick out of it, nor even if they had a painless method.

Hunters have no trouble portraying their critics as naive, soft, sentimental, interfering, hypocritical city slickers. We want abattoir workers to do our dirty work, we don’t understand the destruction feral pigs do in the bush, we can’t accept that the thrill of the chase is basic human nature, etc, etc. However, a hunting sympathist who is prepared to go beyond name calling, who prefers sophisticated apologetics to soothe his conscience, only need google “ethics of hunting”, and he will uncover a stack of essays on this very subject by urbane and civilised hunter-philosophers.

This guy turned his little girl into a keen deer hunter, even though she

eats no other red meat. She reasons that deer live a wild, free life and are then killed by a hunter, quickly and cleanly, without suffering, and converted to food. It all meets her strict ethical standards, from the quality of the deer’s existence, through the motives of the hunter, the speed of the kill, and the reverence for the game.

Then there’s this loveable grouse hunter, who surely is moral responsibility personified, since he teaches ethics and environmental philosophy at Cornell University. He refers to

…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

And if you want endorsement from God himself, or a next best thing, here’s a priest:

I, like millions of others, venture into the outdoors to spend time with God, family and friends, while being surrounded by the beauty of Our Lord’s creation — and yes, at times I respectfully harvest food from that creation to sustain my life and feed others, as it was intended…Those who truly love the outdoors have a deep respect for all of creation and take an active role in keeping our precious alive and healthy for future generations…And it’s not out of selfishness so that we can “have more things to kill”, as some would say, but rather our concern flows from a hyper-awareness of the intrinsic, life-sustaining aned soul-nourishing value of these great gifts.

So there you go. Who would dare to argue with someone who was hyperaware? Actually, it was Fr Classen who broke the spell that the other folksy philsopher-hunters had begun to weave. What a pile of pious, self-congratulatory grandiloquence, all to make himself feel better about sneaking up on gentle beasts of the forest and blasting them with his rifle. ‘Respectfully harvest’ belongs in a euphemism competition.

This guy, to his credit, honestly acknowledges that the food argument doesn’t fly, even if the food itself does. He says:

The intention of hunting is not to kill per se, but to derive pleasure from the attempt to do so; and often, if not most of the time, the hunter’s attempts to kill an animal will end in failure. This likelihood of failure is necessary to maintain the tension and enjoyment that arises from the game’s fundamental uncertainty.

He rejects the arguments that hunting is justified by the fact that it’s a means to obtain food or way of getting close to nature:

There are other ways to get close to nature than hunting. One could choose to play cards with friends and family if that is ones goal. One can eat meat without killing animals by hunting. Each of these putative justifications for hunting miss the point that the goal or purpose of hunting is to hunt. Hunting is an elaborate, rule-bound game for pursuing and killing an animal. And because the game in this case is a physical one, sport is the accurate philosophical concept to be used in association with hunting.

If the aim of hunting is food or nature conservation, leave it to the farmers, game-keepers and professional exterminators. If it’s for the thrill, and you are happy to subordinate the rights of the dumber creatures with whom you share this planet, then go ahead and have your thrills, but be aware you’re on the same ethical level as Bob McComb, and that the tide of civilised opiniion is against you. Otherwise, take up nature photography.

This entry was posted in Environment, Sport-general, Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
33 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
12 years ago

James

You seem to be positing a situation where the animal/s “need to be killed” and a system is in place which avoids gratuitous cruelty and maximises the chances of a quick, clean kill. In those circumstance I fail to see how a significant moral dimension even arises.

Back when we humans were all hunter-gatherers, I imagine some hunters gained a blood lust thrill from killing game, others simply took pleasure in their technical stalking and shooting skills, other enjoyed a day out rambling in th woods with the dogs and a practical job to be done, still others mostly just enjoyed boasting to the tribe about their skills and telling tall stories about the one that got away, while a few may even have been sorrowful about the animals they were killing but accepted the objective necessity if their family was to be fed.

I don’t see that it really matters which one or more of these motivations exist or predominate in a modern “sporting shooter” as long as there is an effective supervisory system to avoid gratuitous cruelty and maximise chances of a quick, clean kill. Should we strap shooters and abattoir workers to mobile EEG machines and ban the ones who seem to be enjoying it too much!!?? To me it’s the fact that such an anti-cruelty supervisory system often doesn’t really exist in practise that may make hunting morally repugnant or at least problematic. I guess I’m just becalmed somewhere in the neap tide of barely civilised opinion.

jimparker
jimparker(@jimparker)
12 years ago

“I dont see that it really matters which one or more of these motivations exist or predominate in a modern sporting shooter as long as there is an effective supervisory system to avoid gratuitous cruelty and maximise chances of a quick, clean kill.”

Yup. I’d go along with that. I’ve done a bit of pigeon, duck and peasant pheasant shooting in my time and:
a) it wasn’t yer classic English shooting party firing squad. If you brought down a bird, you’d find it and make sure it was dead before setting up again;
b) we generally used 20 gauge or .410 guns with a tight choke, or .22 rifles (a real test of skill), which meant more chance of a miss but more likely a kill if you hit.
c) eating a fowl you shot yourself does add a certain piquant taste. Until you bite down on a pellet.

However that whole canned hunt blackbuck park thing does strike me as rather off.

As for hunting wild pigs, from what I’ve seen of the buggers (twice suddenly in bush, scared the shit out of us at first, we all shot and missed) I’d prefer to call in an airstrike.

I reckon if you’re really concerned about how humans treat animals (or eachother), there’s a fuckpot of causes that need more support right now than shooting wild animals in the wild.

The fact many humans have convinced others to turn killing wild animals into into a structured pursuit with ethical implications is at least a step forward over how we used to behave (Seen a passenger pigeon lately?). Well to animals at least. Still gotta lift our game when it comes to eachother though.

Incidentally, ever visited one of those agribusiness factories that produces your daily bacon and eggs? Now that’s a vision of hell if you’re on the wrong end of the food chain.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Ken: I didn’t mention banning anything. That’s not the only reason to examine the ethics of this or that actvity. If someone tries to convert me to vegetarianism or celibacy I don’t assume he wants to make meat-eating or sex illegal. Apart from that, I must say your last sentence was a delight.

Nabakov: Re. your step forward: yes, I agree, it’s good; let’s make another one. As for factory farming, I agree about that, but since no-one is advocating hunting as humanity’s alternative to battery livestock, I don’t see the relevance.

jimparker
jimparker(@jimparker)
12 years ago

“Nabakov: Re. your step forward: yes, I agree, its good; lets make another one.”

Shoot. I’m all ears.

whyisitso
whyisitso
12 years ago

It’s interesting that recreational fishing is the last huntin’ and killin’ activity that appears to have retained general community approval, both as a spiritually-enriching activity (it’s main raison d’etre) as well as for food on the table or barbie. It was only frowned upon when Andrew Symonds did it to get out of cricket practice.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

There’s a couple of reasons why that might be the case. One is that fish are, as far as I know, lower on the sentience scale. The other is that, at least with line fishing, you have the option to throw the fish back. You can enjoy the sport without killing if you want to; on the other hand, the choice to eat the fish is based entirely on whether you want to eat a fish, and not a rationalisation for an act of killing primarily undertaken for fun. A test of this hypothesis is whether people approve of spear fishing — which in general I think they don’t.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

James, could you restate your argument, succinctly, as to why you think hunting/killing animals for fun is unethical? I can only infer from your last sentence that you consider it most unethical, but nowhere in this post have you said why you think so.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

It wasn’t the purpose of the post to establish that killing animals for fun is unethical. That’s self-evident to me, which is why I recommended reading no further if you were comfortable with using abandoned dogs for target practice. The purpose of the post was to point that it’s still wrong to kill for pleasure even if the killing is justified for other reasons. It was inspired — and forgive me if I’m straying from succinctness here — by a gut reaction to the talkback discussion, and the memory of a ghastly Hungarian novel that glorifies hunting as an expression of hyper-masculinity.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

You say it’s self-evident to you, but that not an ethical argument; it’s a statement of opinion. Why is it ethically wrong for anyone to hunt for pleasure?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

To repeat, I didn’t claim to be making the argument; yes, it’s an opinion. If you insist that I articulate an ethical position, it would be helpful to know where you’re coming from. Do I need to go as far as to demonstrate that it’s wrong to kill fellow humans for pleasure; or are you wondering what additional premises and inferences govern the extension of the principle to animals?

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Where I’m coming from? My position is that I think hunting is ethical or, rather, it’s not necessarily unethical, if you’ll forgive the double negative.

Do you need to demonstrate that it’s wrong to kill fellow humans? Hardly – that’s not the contention, and you know it.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

I know you don’t think hunting humans is OK, but for all I know you might nonethless want me to articulate a consistent ethical position from scratch.

But here’s a first stab:

Premise 1: It’s wrong for A to take B’s life if (a) B is capable of enjoying and valuing that life and aspires to continue it, and (b) killing B is not necessary for A’s own survival.

Premise 2: Certain animals are capable of valuing and enjoying their lives, and aspire to continue them.

Premise 3: Hunting is an act in which A takes B’s life.

Premise 4: Most humans don’t need to hunt to survive.

Conclusion: It’s wrong for most humans to hunt certain animals.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Thanks, James.

The conclusion relies upon premise 1, which is an unproven assertion.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Ethical arguments aren’t usually premised entirely on ‘proven’ facts are they? Unless you mean scriptures, which somehow I doubt.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Ethical arguments arent usually premised entirely on proven facts are they?

Aren’t they?

Your argument has the following structure:

1. If A, then B.
2. A.
3. Conclusion: B is true.

However, this relies on #1 (and #2, for that matter) being true. Unless you can demonstrate that #1 is true (rather than simply asserted) you might just as well say, “hunting is wrong if hunting is wrong”.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Give me an example of an ethical argument in which all the premises are proven, to the standard of proof you have in mind. (That it’s wrong to hunt humans for pleasure, might be one, if you need a suggestion). Then, when you’ve shown me how it works, I’ll see if I can do the same with hunting animals.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

What “standard or proof”, James? It’s not like I’m asking you to prove the first Law of Thermodynamics. You assert that,

“Its wrong for A to take Bs life if (a) B is capable of enjoying and valuing that life and aspires to continue it, and (b) killing B is not necessary for As own survival.”

but WHY is it wrong? You haven’t even attempted to support the premise.

You’re evading the issue with this talk about hunting humans. If you think humans are ethically equivalent to other animals, I suggest that you’re very misguided on this issue.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

I assure you that I’m not being evasive, and if you still think that’s the case after reading this comment, then let’s not continue.

It was you who invoked the idea of proof, when you dismissed Premise 1 as an ‘unproven assertion’.

But it isn’t legitimate to demand proof of axiomatic moral statements. They’re based on a mixture of habits of thought, and gut feelings arising from empathy and from fear of social sanction. At best we can ask — why do you feel that x is wrong? or how do you see x as being similar to other things that we both agree are wrong? Perhaps that’s what you mean in the last comment when you talk about ‘supporting’ Premise 1.

I feel that it’s wrong to kill animals that pose no threat to me, especially, as it happens, those that haven’t been farmed for the purpose, and have the good luck to remain in their natural state. This feeling seems consistent with prohibitions against (a) causing pain and suffering to animals, and (b) killing humans, neither of which is controversial.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

It was you who invoked the idea of proof, when you dismissed Premise 1 as an unproven assertion.

Actually, James, you kicked off proceedings with the structure at #12. If you’re going to use a logical structure, you have to be ready to follow its rules. One of those rules is that an argument is only as strong as its premises, and your first premise was no self-evidently true, thus the argument built upon it was weak. It wasn’t my preference for you to go that way, and your latest approach offers far more progress for both of us, to whit…

But it isnt legitimate to demand proof of axiomatic moral statements.

Yes, it is, because – as you noted yourself, I think – very few moral statements ARE axiomatic.

Theyre based on a mixture of habits of thought, and gut feelings arising from empathy and from fear of social sanction. At best we can ask why do you feel that x is wrong? or how do you see x as being similar to other things that we both agree are wrong? Perhaps thats what you mean in the last comment when you talk about supporting Premise 1.

Not quite, but closer. It’s evident that you think/feel that it is wrong; what I wanted to know is why, particularly if the reasoning is meant to be universal, i.e. applicable to all people. That’s what transforms a feeling or preference into an ethical argument.

I feel that its wrong to kill animals that pose no threat to me, especially, as it happens, those that havent been farmed for the purpose, and have the good luck to remain in their natural state. This feeling seems consistent with prohibitions against (a) causing pain and suffering to animals, and (b) killing humans, neither of which is controversial.

OK, fair enough – I understand your feeling, and I assume you’re vegetarian as a result.

Now, is it OK for Joe Bloggs to cause pain and suffering to animals by hunting them? If not, why not?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

The point of the syllogistic structure was to make the argument transparent and isolate the point of contention. It served that purpose well. I’m perfectly aware that the argument is only as strong as its premises, so we can skip the lectures, well intended as they are, about the rules of logic.

A valid statement in maths has to be proven from other valid propositions, or be axiomatic itself. Your comments, taken togthether, imply that this applies to moral statements too. My moral claim isn’t self-evident, hence you ask for ‘proof’.

But as you know it isn’t that simple. All moral rules are ultimately derived from irreducible higher-order ones, but there’s no book of accepted axioms one can refer to. The meaning of ‘self-evident’ is quite nebulous in this context. It connotes both wide acceptance and intuitive appeal, but neither of these is an entirely reliable guide. The self evident core evolves with our experience of the world and our reasoning powers, and controversy rages at the periphery. That slavery is wrong wasn’t self-evident in the seventeenth century; if it isn’t self-evident now, then nothing is.

In the absence of a book of axioms, we get clues from a range of sources, including instinctive sympathy informed by experiences that aid us in understanding the needs and desires of others. To point this out is not to confuse moral precepts with individual preferences. And I did say that there were other clues — in particular, comparability and consistency with other moral precepts.

I wish I could do better, but it’s hard. Again, it would be helpful to know what kinds of actions you do regard as self-evidently wrong; whether there are some you believe wrong but not self evidently so; and in the latter case how you would go about pursuading a sceptic. We could restrict it to animals: where do you stand, for example, on performing bears, dog fighting and seal fur?

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

James, you keep asking me to construct ethical arguments on issues irrelevant to the discussion. Why is it so hard for you to argue the matter at hand?

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

James, your logical cascade in #12 applies equally well to farmed beef, lamb, mutton, etc. which only makes an ethically consistent argument coming from a vegetarian. In those cases where it does come from a vegetarian, it’s an old argument indeed with roots in Jainism and Buddhism and quite a respectable argument too.

One problem, how to know when to stop applying it? Do insects count? Bacteria? Smallpox? Sometimes it must be tempting to decide, “bugger it, I’m the higher life form, and I’m going to prove it by killing something.” Think about whether Smallpox would struggle with ethical dilemmas before killing you. Yes I understand you put an escape, “not necessary for As own survival” but of course, no killing is strictly necessary for your own survival… many people survived Smallpox too. Some killing may enhance your own survival, but once again we are stuck with finding a fine line between what is convenient and what is necessary… comes down to opinion.

Another problem, many examples exist where animals hunt as part and parcel or “valuing and enjoying their lives”. I own a cat and I can tell you they are cruelty incarnate if you happen to be smaller than them. Do your ethics apply universally or only for those who are fully sensitive to the necessary nuances? Can I ask for exemption on the basis that I’m an Engineer, therefore I’m far too practical for ethics to concern me?

Maybe I need exemption merely for keeping a cat, (since I am well aware that it will kill) so I ask exemption on the basis that the cat has a pleasing tactile surface, so I’ll use the “enjoying and valuing life” clause. If you don’t like that then I’ll further point out that cats are handy for keeping vermin out of my food store, thus invoking the “necessary for As own survival” clause (and so much easier than poison or traps).

As for humans hunting other humans; well that has been going on for a rather long time, so what of it? It is generally accepted that an organised team of humans will beat three shades of stuffing out of any individual “hunter” so sometime back in the Bronze Age the individual hunters dropped out of the game and swore fealty to a king or state (that being their only hope of survival) and for convenience we renamed this particular activity “warfare” in recognition of the different dynamic. The rest is (as they say) History.

I don’t expect your argument #12 will reduce human propensity for warfare, but don’t let me be discouraging. Maybe your very next statement will stir a rush of insight in the reader and bring peace to the world. I promise not to complain if that should happen.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

It’s hard because you haven’t given any clues as to what kind of argument would satisfy you. A concrete case would probably be clearer than some set of abstract principles. Most people, for example, would find it self-evident that passtimes involving cruelty to animals are wrong. Initially I assumed you do too, though after your Joe Bloggs comment, I’m not sure. But if you do think that, say, gambling on dog fights is wrong, and you can tell me why, it might be only a short step to expalining why hunting seem wrong to me.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Tel, I didn’t see your comment earlier. I agree with the first two paragraphs. As for the question you raise in the third paragraph: no, I don’t apply ethical standards to cats. You lost me after that.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

James, forget about “satisfying” me. Just say why you think it’s wrong.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

I’ve done so already, more or less explicitly, as best I can. But here’s a summary.

Inflicting gratuitous suffering on humans, inflicting gratuitous suffering on animals, and killing humans without their consent (even when it’s done painlessly) are all self-evidently wrong.

Hunting may not be self-evidently wrong in the sense of being universally condemned in our society, but to approve it doesn’t seem consistent with those other principles. If animals, or at least some of them, are entitled to the same consideration as humans witn respect to gratuitous suffering, then the same applies to the prohibition against killing humans — namely, that it extends to some animals.

In addition, hunting triggers distress and a sense of injustice, not just in me but in a significant proportion of reasonable people.

If you don’t think that consistency and widely-shared abhorrence are grounds for declaring something unethical, then what is?

It seems to me that the tactic you’re adopting is misplaced here. If I was argung that usury or homosexuality was wrong, and I repeatedly failed to show how these things harm anyone, then it would make sense to ask — over and over, with an air of condescending patience — why it’s wrong. But it’s kind of obvious that killing animals harms them. So you must be wanting me to spell out why it’s wrong to harm animals. Well, it’s self-evident that gratuitously torturing animals is wrong, so the suggestion that at least some forms of harm to animals are unethical obviously isn’t preposterous — as it would be in the case of plants, or rocks. If you really think it’s a bizarre and incomprensible leap of logic, then maybe the onus is on you, just for a change, to say why.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Thanks, James. Coupla comments in response:

First, apologies if I’ve come across as condescending – that wasn’t my intention. If I seem overly persistent on this point, it’s because I’m interested in the subject (i.e. I’ve hunted in the past, enjoyed it and had no ethical problems with it, but I’m open to questioning my views on it) and I respect you enough to believe you would articulate a strong argument for your position.

Second, whether lots of people share an opinion is neither here nor there; that’s a political argument, not an ethical one.

Third, it’s not self-evident that harming animals is wrong. We harm them all the time when we eat them, skin them, yoke them to ploughs, enslave them as pets or zoological curiousities, take away their habitat etc., and the reason why we, humans, do it is because it is to our benefit and because we do not accord other animals the same rights we reserve for ourselves.

Fourth, the modifier “gratuitous” is very important to your argument, because I’m fairly certain you’re not opposed to some suffering inflicted on animals and the distinction I think you’re making is very arbitrary. I think it’s also highly contentious on your part to argue that hunting animals inflicts more “gratuitous suffering” or “torture” than factory farming or the many other ways in which we kill animals.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

Suppose I was to start on a program of introducing foxes to various remote islands. In about ten seconds, I’d have environmentalists screaming and starting campaigns about upsetting fragile ecosystems and blah blah blah. They swing a big political hammer so the program would be stopped in its tracks.

Suppose I go and start encouraging British nobility to come fox hunting in Australia on private land, with consent of the land owners (who consider foxes to be vermin). Now we are killing off the nasty introduced species, and sure enough when this very thing was tried there were screams and howls and campaigns about how wrong it all was.

All of which shows that ethics is nothing to do with consistency whatsoever. You get the ethics you are willing and able to fight for.

FDB
FDB
12 years ago

“All of which shows that ethics is nothing to do with consistency whatsoever.”

Tel, that only hold if it were the very same people campaigning in the two ways you describe. I’m sure plenty of people are fool enough to hold both positions, but one is right and the other is wrong, so I’d say there would be much less overlap than you make out. Most genuine environmentalists can see this just fine.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Fyodor

Sorry for the delay, and thanks for securing the discussion on an amicable foundation. On your second point, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I’ve made the claim a few times above that ethical generalisations are rooted at least in part on the observation that humans share common emotional responses to certain actions by their fellows; and that, while these evolve, shaped by experience and scientific progress, they remain a basis for our ethical maxims. So, no matter how ingeniously some ethical philosopher manages to demonstrate that it’s wrong to kick rocks, or strike an assailant in self defense, those principles are unlikely to gain widespread acceptance (unless they are doctrines of some religion or cult with a systematic influence on people’s emotional responses). Perhaps this is a naive position, but I’m not inclined to step back from it without a strong counterargument.

Your third and fouth points are tied together, since I only maintained that harming animals is self-evidently wrong when it’s gratuitous, or not necessary for ‘survival’. All I can do here is suggest there’s a difference between ‘somewhat arbitrary’ and ‘completely arbitrary’. I’m guessing we can all agree on some clear cut cases: torturing animals for reasons of pure sadistic pleasure is gratuitous. Killing a lamb that’s the only food in sight is not. In the middle there’s a huge grey area, which in modern economies with plenty of alternative protein sources and synthetic materials, includes farming for meat and leather. I just don’t know. But I do think that hunting just for pleasure — even when death is painless — is in the first category, as is enslavement of normally wild animals. The tricky problem for me (analagous to the problem of joint production in price theory!) is whether hunting suddenly becomes justified when there’s a secondary purpose like food or environmental control. The easy answer is yes, but humans are rather too good at rationalising their actions: my post was a reaction against glib ethical reasoning more than anything.

Tel

My response is mostly the same as FDB’s. But I’d go further and note that ‘environmental’ considerations should be separated from ethical ones. ‘The environment’ doesn’t care whether the foxes are shredded by bloodthirsty hounds, captured and euthanised, or sterlised and superannuated to special fox parks funded by charity.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Sorry for the delay, and thanks for securing the discussion on an amicable foundation.

No worries, James – I wanted no other kind.

On the point in your first paragraph, I think we’re at cross-purposes. I understand the argument from empathy/sentiment – I think it explains the greater part of your personal opposition to hunting, for example – but I don’t consider it an ethical argument so much as a statement of preferences. If we object to cruelty to kittens, but not to tuna, are we not inconsistent? Is it permissable to be cruel to unlovely species with which we share no empathy? Furthermore, the point I was actually making is that the shared preference of a large number of people doesn’t make that preference ethically superior; it makes it politically significant, and these are not the same thing. We only have to think about a wide variety of popularly held opinions (e.g. on race, religion, sexual preference etc.) that would fail ethical tests to appreciate this point.

On the second paragraph, I don’t agree with your contention that my 3rd and 4th points are tied together, and I’m not sure you really believe it either. You say that harming animals is wrong when it’s not necessary for “survival”, but that is an absolutist argument that suffers an extremely slippery slope [Is it wrong to keep animals as pets? Our survival doesn’t rely upon their enslavement.]. I say I don’t believe you believe the argument either because you seem ambivalent on the “grey area”, e.g. farming, or the eating of meat. As I noted before, we subjugate the rights of other animals to our own because we don’t give them the rights we reserve for ourselves. Are we wrong to do this? This is the crux of my third point. My fourth point was about the arbitraryness and imprecision of your qualifier (i.e. “gratuitous”); this is separate from the issue of whether we are wrong to exploit animals for our benefit.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Sorry for the delay again, Fyodor, if you’re still around. Your arguments don’t lend themselves to a quick response, so I had to find the time.You ask:

Is it permissable to be cruel to unlovely species with which we share no empathy?

Not on that basis, obviously. But I have noted that a species’ capacity for suffering is relevant. Tuna expiring slowly on the deck of a boat probably suffer much less than kittens would in the same predicament, and if that’s incorrect I freely acknowldege the inconsistency. In any case, most people probably have sufficient empathy with tuna that they would help one if stranded on a beach, or something like that.

If you’re right that widely shared emotional responses are irrelevant to ethical principles, then the latter must rely entirely on some dispassionate calculus, and that’s counterintuitive to me. But — and this revelation will have you gasping in disbelief –I’m not actually a trained ethical philosopher, so I can’t take the argument much further without doing some research.

Rather than pursue the question of whether your earlier ‘points 3 and 4 were linked, I’ll just reaffirm that I see a distinction, when it comes to causing someone pain and sufferig, between doing so: in pursuit of an external objective, however frivolous or ludicrous (mink coats, rhinocerous horn powder); and for its own sake, that is, for fun — whether this is pure sadism, or based on some kind of primeval competitive urge.

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

But I have noted that a species capacity for suffering is relevant. Tuna expiring slowly on the deck of a boat probably suffer much less than kittens would in the same predicament, and if thats incorrect I freely acknowldege the inconsistency. In any case, most people probably have sufficient empathy with tuna that they would help one if stranded on a beach, or something like that.

I’m not sure it is that relevant. Certainly, it’s relevant to how an individual responds to instances of animal suffering, but the subjectivity makes it very difficult from an ethical stand-point. How do we measure the suffering of an animal? Is it their suffering or ours (i.e. via empathy) that is more important? If a animal is killed quickly and (relatively) painlessly, is it OK to hunt them?

If youre right that widely shared emotional responses are irrelevant to ethical principles, then the latter must rely entirely on some dispassionate calculus, and thats counterintuitive to me.

I can see why you think that, but you only have to consider the exceptions to realise that generalising an ethical argument from the sentiment of some to the obligations of all is actually quite difficult. For instance, if I don’t share your squeamishness about the suffering of animals, is it ethically OK for me to hunt them?

Rather than pursue the question of whether your earlier points 3 and 4 were linked, Ill just reaffirm that I see a distinction, when it comes to causing someone pain and sufferig, between doing so: in pursuit of an external objective, however frivolous or ludicrous (mink coats, rhinocerous horn powder); and for its own sake, that is, for fun whether this is pure sadism, or based on some kind of primeval competitive urge.

Jeez, James, you say “primeval competitive urge” like it’s a bad thing!