Thursday, February 5, 2009

Prolegomenon: Hunting as Sport

Most people are familiar with the long-standing criticisms of sport hunting. For example, in “A Damnable Pleasure,” Joseph Wood Krutch’s polemical critique of hunters and hunting, Krutch writes:
The killer for sport has no . . . comprehensible motive. He prefers death to life, darkness to light. He gets nothing except the satisfaction of saying, “Something which wanted to live is dead. There is that much less vitality, consciousness, and, perhaps, joy in the universe. I am the Spirit that Denies.”
To which Krutch adds, “To me it is inconceivable how anyone should think an animal more interesting dead than alive. I can also easily prove to my own satisfaction that killing ‘for sport’ is the perfect type of pure evil for which the metaphysicians have sometimes sought . . . ” (Krutch 1969, 148). Anti-hunters like Krutch commonly argue that hunting is unjustifiable because it is violent, unethical, and barbaric. Hunters enjoy a "damnable pleasure" that is pure evil. (Hell, while we’re at it—hunters are pure evil.)

Joy Williams’s essay, “The Killing Game,” is a similarly dramatic ad hominem against hunters. “The American hunter is blood-thirsty, piggish, and grossly incompetent," Williams writes. The main problem with recreational hunting, she argues, is simply the fact that hunters “kill for play, for the thrill of it.”

Therefore, "it’s time to stop actively supporting and passively allowing hunting and time to stigmatize it."
Hunters’ self-serving arguments and lies are becoming more preposterous as nonhunters awake from their long, albeit troubled, sleep. Sport hunting is immoral; it should be made illegal. Hunters are persecutors of nature who should be prosecuted. They wield a disruptive power out of all proportion to their numbers, and pandering to their interests–the special interests of a group that just wants to kill things–is mad. It’s preposterous that every year less than 7 percent of the population turns the skies into shooting galleries and the woods and fields into abattoirs. It’s time to stop being conned and cowed by hunters, time to stop pampering and coddling them, time to get them off the government’s duck-and-deer dole, time to stop thinking of wild animals as “resources” and “game,” and start thinking of them as sentient beings that deserve our wonder and respect, time to stop allowing hunters to be creditable by calling it “sport” and “recreation.” Hunters make wildlife dead, dead, dead. It’s time to wake up to this indisputable fact. As for hunters, it’s long past check-out time (Williams 1990, 265).
It’s pretty clear that Williams dislikes both hunting and hunters!

In contrast I believe that recreational sport hunting pursued for its own sake is morally justifiable. What’s more, I specifically embrace the use of the terms ‘recreational’ or ‘sport’ hunting to defend hunting. The reality of recreational sport hunting is that hunters are motivated not by need or utility but by a desire for the pleasures and enjoyment of the hunt. When viewed in this way, in this specifically non-utilitarian or even aesthetic sense, sport hunting can be interpreted, defended, and justified as an art form.

The idea of calling sport hunting an art form is not crazy. In a thoughtful book about boxing, for example, novelist Joyce Carol Oates speaks of “the awareness of life’s tragic ambiguity that serious art provides” and argues that the sport of boxing is a serious art (Oates 1994, 137). In a similar book about bullfighting, Bruce Schoenfeld writes, "Bullfighting at its best forces everyone who sees it to become keenly aware of his own mortality, which arguably should ennoble his being and enhance his life. It's serious stuff" (Schoenfeld 1992, 91).

Exactly. Hunting is serious stuff as well. As a voluntary leisure activity hunting has the potential to ennoble one’s being and enhance the lives of those who practice it.

One of the problems with discussing hunting today is the terminology we use. Traditionally, the term ‘sportsman’ has conveyed the normative side of recreational hunting by helping make distinctions about fair and unfair methods of hunting. But more recently, the very idea of the hunting as a sport has itself been called into question. Some defenders of hunting believe that the use of the term ‘sport’ to describe hunting trivializes hunting. Others respond by saying that justifications of hunting as sport should be abandoned in favor of utilitarian justifications such as food-getting.

The term ‘sport’ however continues to convey accurately the sense of sporting ethics that has distinguished non-subsistence hunting as a recreational activity for thousands of years. Abandoning the term ‘sport’—or, at the very least, forgetting the reasons why hunting should be classified a sport—would be a mistake in my view.

It may just be that conceptualizing hunting as a sport provides the only possible basis for a meaningful hunting ethics. Aldo Leopold argues that hunting for sport is an "improvement" over hunting for food because the entire notion of "sport" brings with it not only an emphasis on skill but also an ethical code that hunters must uphold "without the moral support of bystanders" (Leopold 1933 (1986), 391). Those who argue that hunting is best defended as a means to getting food are left without a rationale for why hunting should be conducted in an ethical or sporting manner as opposed to the most efficient or expedient manner.

We might also consider the question asked by José Ortega y Gasset in Meditations on Hunting: Does hunting have an essence? Even though many philosophers tend toward skepticism about "essences" of anything, hunting as a concept helps organize different human experiences and identify what is common to all of them. The philosophic literature on play, games, and sport, provides a theoretical basis or framework for understanding what Ortega refers to as the "essence" of hunting. Is play or "sport" the essence of hunting? There are good reasons for believing so.


Eric C. Nuse said...

"Those who argue that hunting is best defended as a means to getting food are left without a rationale for why hunting should be conducted in an ethical or sporting manner as opposed to the most efficient or expedient manner"
Several years ago I was in Alaska as part of a peer review team for the Hunter Education Program. We got an earful from some instructors that lived and taught in the bush about an effort by the State to push fair chase principles in Hunter Ed. They wanted to know why in hell they should not drive their snow machine within 50 yards of a caribou and kill it with one shot, when that was critical for their winter meat.
It pointed out to me that there is a big difference between subsistence hunting and sport hunting. Confusing the two got the HE coordinator in big trouble!

Albert A Rasch said...

I wish I was sufficiently intellectual enough to comment appropriately.

All I can say is thank you for a well written and intelligent commentary.

Thank You,
Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit
Southeast Regional OBS Coordinator

Anonymous said...

"The reality of recreational sport hunting is that hunters are motivated not by need or utility but by a desire for the pleasures and enjoyment of the hunt. When viewed in this way, in this specifically non-utilitarian or even aesthetic sense, sport hunting can be interpreted, defended, and justified as an art form.

How is a desire for pleasure...non-utilitarian?

luvicallejas said...

Being a blog on the philosophy of sport I would expect at the very least a philosophical counter-argument to the anti-hunting positions alluded to in the beginning of the post. Sadly, the post is reduced to merely articulating a belief: "I believe that recreational sport hunting pursued for its own sake is morally justifiable." The moral value of recreational sport hunting is left unexplained (vs., for instance, the position that killing animals for sport is immoral). While the aesthetic interpretation of hunting bears fruit, the realm of aesthetics is not necessarily the realm of morality. How does hunting "ennoble one’s being and enhance the lives of those who practice it?"

Tait Szabo said...

"I believe that recreational sport hunting pursued for its own sake is morally justifiable...hunters are motivated not by need or utility but by a desire for the pleasures and enjoyment of the hunt. When viewed in this way, in this specifically non-utilitarian or even aesthetic sense, sport hunting can be interpreted, defended, and justified as an art form."

Luvicallejas' criticism is right on the money. In the part quoted above, we see a quick move from aesthetic justification to moral justification. There seems to be an implicit premise in the argument, something to the effect that "if it is aesthetically justifiable to do X, then it is morally justifiable to do X," but that premise is clearly false.

The examples offered also seem to help the case against hunting rather than support it. Bullfighting, art form or not, is also morally objectionable. So, too, perhaps with boxing, although at least that has the advantage that both participants are autonomous, voluntary participants.

The argument also seems to miss the point of the objections to hunting. If hunters were driven by need, for example, then their actions would be more likely rather than less to be justifiable, because it is more likely that the good of their actions would outweigh the bad.

Suppose we were talking about hunting humans. Calling it sport or art, or pointing out that it can somehow "ennoble" the hunter, or taking any other move used in this article clearly fails to justify the hunting of humans. To give a moral justification for hunting, a defender needs to explain how causing suffering and death of innocent, sentient beings is morally justified. An appeal to aesthetics is clearly insufficient.

Jim Tantillo said...

My thanks for the thoughtful comments so far. I'll address them in order as time allows.

"How is a desire for pleasure...non-utilitarian?"

Good point. I used 'utilitarian' in the vulgar and not the philosophical sense. A clearer term to substitute for 'utilitarian' would be 'unproductive', in Caillois's sense of play as unproductive.

This piece is from a larger manuscript (much of which also addresses the specifics of Luvicallejas' and Tait's complaints) that responds to a specific argument within wildlife management NOT to conceptualize or defend hunting as a sport.

For example, Wyoming wildlife managers Walt Gasson and Larry Kruckenberg recommend to hunters:

Don't defend hunting as “sport.” Remember that, despite what we might think, most of the American public opposes “sport” hunting. Instead, emphasize the personal values of hunting. We hunt to get close to nature; we hunt to enjoy experiences with friends and family. These are acceptable values. Most hunters eat their kill, so it's fair to defend hunting from this angle. Emphasize the utilitarian values of hunting (i.e. consumption of meat) whenever possible (Gasson 1993, 38).

In the larger essay I address among other things the arguments that hunting is NOT a sport and should be defended by emphasizing "utilitarian values" quote-unquote.

With Mike Austin's blessing I would welcome the opportunity to post more of the essay here to the blog.

Jim Tantillo said...

Other matters interfered with my schedule this afternoon, but I don't want to put off at least a brief response to the other comments:

"I would expect at the very least a philosophical counter-argument to the anti-hunting positions alluded to in the beginning of the post";


"we see a quick move from aesthetic justification to moral justification."

Again, my thanks for these thoughtful responses. Both comments are accurate as far as the original post goes, which again is prefatory to a larger project I'm currently working on.

That larger project is in part a reworking of material from an earlier article titled "Sport Hunting, Eudaimonia, and Tragic Wisdom." In that piece you should get a sense of the philosophical counter-argument I would make as well as a sense of how I think the aesthetic justification might inform the moral justification. Here's the citation and link to pdf:

Tantillo, James A. 2001. Sport Hunting, Eudaimonia, and Tragic Wisdom. Philosophy in the Contemporary World 8 (2):101-112.

hope this helps. I am enjoying the conversation, and I very much appreciate the responses. thanks,

Jim T.

Steve Weimer said...

I (very quickly) skimmed your article, and it seems like an interesting idea. I didn't look into the details, but at first glance your claim that hunting could contribute to human flourishing in some way(s) seems to me plausible.

(Unless we are certain that hunting is immoral, and that immoral activities cannot contribute to flourishing. I'm not familiar with perfectionist accounts, but I'd suspect that at least some of them take this sort of position. For instance, if developing and/or exercising a capacity for complex intellectual activity is an aspect of flourishing, does it "count" if the manner in which an individual develops and exercises that capacity is by concocting and executing intricate plans for torture or world domination? Perhaps this "evil genius" question is related to the "courageous Nazi" question debated by virtue ethicists? I'm not sure where that debate stands.)

Ignoring that, and assuming that the flourishing contribution of hunting does "count," then it seems to me that we've at least got an ethical value on the pro side of the ledger, and that this puts hunting in a better position than it would be if it only had aesthetic values to speak for it. I'm not sure, though, that that ethical value will be sufficient to outweigh the disvalue of causing suffering for a sentient being. I'd probably find an answer to this with a closer reading of your paper, but couldn't we get that contribution to flourishing in some way that didn't involve harming/killing animals? If so, then shouldn't we get it in that other way? Wouldn't seeking that contribution through hunting be like exercising one's intellect through by trying to take over the world, instead of, say, reading philosophy?

Jim Tantillo said...

thanks for taking the time to look at the article. I agree with you completely when you say, "I'm not sure, though, that that ethical value will be sufficient to outweigh the disvalue of causing suffering for a sentient being."

But I think on the other side of the ledger there are a host of philosophically complex questions about death, harm, and suffering of animals. Questions that have generally remained unexplored by those who oppose hunting and other forms of animal use.

Which means there is a burden of proof on both sides of the argument. It is simply not enough to say, as Tait does for example above, "To give a moral justification for hunting, a defender needs to explain how causing suffering and death of innocent, sentient beings is morally justified."

Is death a harm to animals? That question is difficult enough when applied to humans. There are any number of well-known puzzles about death that going back to Lucretius and Epicurus. A full justification of hunting would necessarily have to address that subject, as would a full critique of hunting, for that matter.

Second, what is animal "suffering"? Again, puzzles and problems abound. Some philosophers argue that there's a mental component of human suffering that is absent in nonhumans; therefore we should not automatically extrapolate from human experience to animals.

Patrick Wall, who literally wrote the book on suffering, argues that the very notion of "pain" in animals is too vague and fraught with problems that we should abandon the use of the term 'pain' with animals.

Wall writes, "The use of the phrase 'pain in animals' is so undefinable that it is meaningless to animals and to those who have the well-being of animals at heart. The misunderstandings of 'pain in animals' can work to the severe detriment of the animals by attempting to assign to them specifically human values" (1992, "On Defining 'Pain' in Animals," 78).

Moreover, there are tricky questions about how and why "sentience" should matter. As Patrick Wall further comments, "'Sentient animals' is a favorite phrase used by those who wish us to extend our obligations beyond our fellow men to include animals; this can be an anthropomorphic trap. The intent is to define some broad group of animals, say mammals or vertebrates, as sentient and therefore capable of feeling pain. These are arbitrary limits, probably set by social empathy in interactions with animals" (75).

Is the ritual invocation of "sentient creatures" simply a smokescreen for inadequate argumentation coming from those who oppose animal exploitation?

Finally, is killing an animal wrong? Even Peter Singer is prepared to accept that human benefits accrue from killing some animals, and says these killings may be morally justifiable as long as the killing is quick, clean, and painless (whatever we take painless to mean). As Singer writes:

"Sentience suffices to place a being within the sphere of equal consideration of interests; but it does not mean that the being has a personal interest in continuing to live. For a non-self-conscious being, death is the cessation of experiences, in much the same way that birth is the beginning of experiences. Death cannot be contrary to a preference for continued life, any more than birth could be in accordance with a preference for commencing life. To this extent, with non-self-conscious life, birth and death cancel each other out; whereas with self-conscious beings the fact that once self-conscious one may desire to continue living means that death inflicts a loss for which the birth of another is insufficient gain.

"So far as animals are concerned, it obviously becomes important to try to decide which animals are self-conscious, in the sense of being capable of desiring to go on living. Some philosophers have argued that only a language-user can be self-conscious. I do not find these arguments convincing, but the issue is too large to be considered here. In any case I would be prepared to concede that some of the animals commonly killed for food are not self-conscious--chickens could be an example"
(1979, "Killing Humans and Killing Animals," 152)

I agree with Singer that the issue is too large to be resolved here.

But again, what this all means is that: (a) there's a burden to provide evidence on both sides of the argument. I don't think opponents of animal use can simply assume prima facie that all animal use is morally wrong.

And (b) there is no reason on the face of it why we should not entertain the argument that sport hunting is morally justifiable. Part of the attraction of the activity is the very moral ambiguity that surrounds it.

As Ortega y Gasset comments (and I'll end for now with this quote),

"Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanting animal. He does not have the final and firm conviction that his conduct is correct. But neither, it should be understood, is he certain of the opposite. Finding himself in an ambivalent situation which he has often wanted to clear up, he thinks about this issue without ever obtaining the sought-after evidence" (1972, 88).

Dr. Dirt said...

I’m intrigued by the repeated contrast of sport and subsistence hunting as I read through Jim’s piece and the subsequent comments. I find this contrast to be absolutely false, reflecting an ideal of necessity, or nobility of cause, in subsistence hunting that is absent in so-called sport hunting. It seems as if just about everyone is willing to begrudge a starving person the right to cull a boar, but add a degree of pleasure to that activity and it becomes unnecessary cruelty that could be substituted with mache mix or a farm raised steer. The pleasure could be a hankering for bearded pig or fat-free venison, or it could be a sense of meaning that comes from engaging in an ancient tradition or honing one’s skills. I don’t think anyone who has lived with subsistence groups would deny that the majority of hunting involves these pleasures, Jim’s “sport,” and embodies more than a simple utilitarian transaction. I lived with the Kenyah Dayak in the rainforest of western Borneo from 1993 to 1994. These folks engage in the most objectively sustainable of all lifestyles on the planet: long fallow slash and burn at low population densities that has persisted for millennia. In rough times they die from malnutrition and disease (1987, I was told). In average times or bountiful times they pursue their many ambitions, including hunting their favorite game, which they target based upon tradition and personal preference, using techniques that range from trapping (pit falls filled with bamboo pongee sticks) to shooting with home-made muskets or, rarely, the traditional blow gun. I participated in many hunts during the rainy season when large populations of game descended upon their forest gardens. Never once was the procurement of game actually a life or death exercise. This wasn’t simply about building up enough fat to survive the leaner, dry season. I witnessed great pleasure in the taking of game with skill, decisions to pass on certain species and sexes due to personal tastes and cultural meaning. Hunting was a favorite past time, a pleasure, that some participated in to the detriment of other responsibilities. I cannot imagine that anyone would define the Kenyah as non-subsistence hunters, but yet they engaged in hunting as sport as much as they were compelled to bring home protein for the table. Their sport was much more than the reductionist attribution of honing life saving skills. It involved layers of personal, family and cultural meaning that all entered into the decision of an individual to hum to his mongrel dog, head to the hills for an afternoon or an all-night hunt, and return many times with nothing but a well-embellished story. So, where is this line drawn between subsistence and sport hunting? Although I’ve run out of steam, I also wonder why it is any more evil for a human to pursue game in the sporting and conservation traditions of Leopold than to consume a vegetarian diet that required clearing habitat for groundhogs, moles, deer, and, gasp, actually killing these pests when their toll on the turnips is too great. Nice work Jim.

Hutchinson said...

Patrick Wall, who literally wrote the book on suffering, argues that the very notion of "pain" in animals is too vague and fraught with problems that we should abandon the use of the term 'pain' with animals.

I studied history and rhetoric and understand the complexities of this notion from an academic standpoint. But they're also semantic traps in that the "sentience" of animals can never be proven by our standards, owing to the fact that we, ourselves, construct the paradigm by which such measures are applied.

One could argue that sentience in a human with no capacity to express or articulate in ways similar to ourselves, could never be proven either. The certainty we had that this person was suffering would derive from our affiliation to him or her as members of the same species. But that connection relies upon physiological criteria, such as having a similar nervous system, rather than anything provably tangible.

And if that's the case, then we, as humans, can certainly derive the same conclusions about animals who also share many of our physiological traits, and whose expressions are not that dissimilar when experiencing what we would construe as pain.

But beyond that, I find the academic explorations and rationalizations extremely difficult, considering our historical capacity to similarly rationalize exploitation of other humans in the past, of the environment, and just about every "other" we have encountered throughout our earthly lineage.

When it comes to ideas of pain or suffering, I personally believe it's incumbent upon us to err on the side of assuming that those who share similar capacities to ours could and probably do, indeed, feel similar pain and suffering. I could rely upon my anecdotal experience in the field, working with animals, but I realize that would be summarily dismissed in a discussion such as this.

That said, I have seen what the effects of human actions are on many different species of animals. And I have no doubt in my mind that suffering is inherent in their experience, as it is in ours. And seeing as how I'm given to such ruminations, I will say there's not a whole hell of a lot in this world I'm certain of. This is one where the emotional IQ, in my mind, needs to transcend the admittedly limited scope of what we can truly grasp intellectually.

Jim Tantillo said...

once again I appreciate the very thoughtful response you've given, and my apologies for the somewhat lengthy response that follows.

I agree with you completely that the fact that animals share with humans a common evolutionary history suggests that similarities of basic physiology exist between humans and non-humans. I also agree with you that these similarities may mean that humans and animals share similar biological responses to pain stimuli.

On the other hand, a shared evolutionary history does not guarantee that humans and non-humans share what may be a uniquely human intellectual response to pain. This insight is important to consider when thinking of the term, “suffering.” Again, many commentators insist that the pain and an individual human’s attitude toward that pain constitute suffering. So while we may be able to make some biological comparisons on the level of basic physiology, then, we may not be able to do the same on a “higher,” mental level.

Scientists who study pain have long been aware that traumatic bodily injury is sometimes accompanied by analgesia (literally, the absence of pain). In incidents that range from being attacked by lions to being shot in battle, human subjects have often reported that at the time of injury there was little or no pain experienced. Philosophers and scientists alike are well aware of the putative cognitive component of pain and suffering; and some have gone so far as to say that pain is an attitude and not a sensation at all (e.g. Nelkin 1986 “Pains and Pain Sensations”).

So your comment cuts two ways: The basic involuntary physiological response of analgesia in the presence of traumatic injury may very well be something that humans and non-humans also share.

Consider traumatic gunshot wounds. Henry K. Beecher was an American battlefield surgeon in World War II who studied the effects of traumatic injury in the form of gunshot wounds experienced by newly wounded soldiers at Anzio. He interviewed over 200 soldiers wounded in five categories, “extensive peripheral soft-tissue injury, compound fracture of a long bone, a penetrated head, a penetrated chest, or a penetrated abdomen” (Beecher 1946, 96). He asked a simple question of all these soldiers: “As you lie there are you having any pain?” In addition, Beecher took steps to ensure that the men were mentally alert and not suffering from shock. If they answered in the affirmative, the wounded soldiers were further asked to classify the pain as slight, moderate, or severe.

Almost one-third of the patients reported feeling no pain whatsoever. Surprising to Beecher, over 70 percent of the recently wounded soldiers reported feeling little or no pain and refused medication in the form of morphine even when it was offered. Beecher tried to explain these results by reasoning that these men had just been rescued from the real threat of death on the battle front, and that despite injury, in some cases severe injury, the safety of the hospital represented something of a psychological analgesic to them.

If you'll indulge me a case report from Beecher's files:

Case Report.–A husky 19-year-old soldier was wounded at the Anzio Beachhead by a mortar shell. Five hours later he was brought into the nearest hospital with a meat cleaver-like wound cutting through the fifth to 12th ribs near the vertebral column. He had bled a great deal . . . and was cyanotic. Obsessed with the idea that he was lying on his rifle, he constantly struggled to get off the litter and complained bitterly of the “pain.” Three attendants were necessary to keep him on the litter. Examination of the patient in any adequate sense was impossible. He appeared to be wild from pain. His wound supported such a belief. (Not only were eight ribs cut in two, and an open pneumothorax present, but later it was found that the lower lobe of the lung, the diaphragm, and one kidney had been lacerated by a broken rib end.) He had had no morphine for at least four hours, and it was planned to give him more; but since the situation was confused, it was decided to give him 150 mg. . . . sodium amytal by vein. This was done, and he at once quieted down and went to sleep. Obviously no morphine was needed (Beecher 1946, 103).

Here, the administering of a sedative had a dramatic effect on the patient's condition. Beecher reports that since the patient no longer struggled, his nasal oxygen tube remained in place and his blood pressure returned to normal. “All agreed that the patient's condition was rapidly deteriorating” before the sedative was administered, but “he turned for the better immediately after the amytal was given.” Because the barbituate could not also have controlled pain in that dosage, Beecher's report includes the final statement: “It is reasonable to conclude that his manic state was not due to pain” (104).

Beecher's battlefield reports mark the beginning of the modern interest in the phenomenon of analgesia in the event of injury. Historically, similar accounts had previously been recorded: Beecher cites an 1827 medical treatise on gunshot wounds and an 1836 French account that comment on the seeming absence of pain in severely wounded individuals.

One of the great insights of Beecher's study was that the then-nearly universal treatment for traumatic injuries (limb loss, gunshot wounds, and the like) with narcotics such as morphine was mistaken. In a discussion of treating pain with morphine, Beecher makes some observations that are pertinent to the study of pain in animals:

"Part of the difficulty with the treatment of the distress of the wounded is that morphine is often employed in an attempt to treat conditions that will not respond to it however large the dose. Patients are described as 'writhing in pain,' and large doses of morphine administered when the real problem is restlessness from cerebral anoxia, or excitement from fear and apprehension. In the former case correction of the oxygen shortage, in the latter, sedation, as with barbituates, is indicated, not morphine" (Beecher 1946, 103).

In other words, victims of gunshot wounds may not be writhing in pain at all, but instead may be reacting to the unfamiliarity of what is happening to them, or to other physiological stresses such as anoxia that are not painful at all. Beecher's case reports emphasize the problem of making faulty inferences about a patient's “pain,” even in cases where patients complain loudly of pain.

Hence it is quite possible that the subjective or phenomenal experience of the animal being hunted is not one of pain and suffering, but rather a dreamlike state of dissociation and even euphoria.

In the essay, “They Say Animals Can Smell Fear,” H. Peter Steeves cites the example of David Livingstone, who survived a lion attack in which he was taken up in the mouth of a lion and shaken “as a terrier-dog does a rat.” Afterwards, Livingstone described what he felt:

“The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients, partially under the influence of chloroform, describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife” (Steeves 1999, 138).

Burn victims similarly report feeling no pain for the first 24 to 48 hours, and may even experience a state of hallucinogenic euphoria that precedes the later onset of pain. It is important to note that such involuntary coping mechanisms of the body to trauma are basic physiological responses and as such may be one of the aspects of basic biology which humans and non-humans share.

Therefore, on one very simple level, it is possible to argue that animals that are hunted may not even experience what we would call “pain.” Again, in Pain: The New Science of Suffering, Patrick Wall argues convincingly that for both humans and animals the response to traumatic injury at the time of injury often does not involve the subjective experience of pain. Wall cites the soldiers Beecher interviewed as well as examples from the animal literature, such as the case of “Henbit,” a horse that won the Epsom Derby in 1980 by pulling away from the pack after breaking a leg over 300 yards from the finish line. So it is quite possible to imagine that the experience of a hunted animal being shot, or even of being grabbed and shaken by hounds (as in the activity of fox hunting), may not result in the pursued animal feeling anything like pain.

Now, to be very clear. I am emphatically NOT arguing that animals do not experience pain, or that animals don’t suffer. Rather I am suggesting that the facile assumption that “hunted animals suffer” itself needs to be examined.

Of course I recognize one might raise other objections. What about the terror and fear the animal must surely experience in the act of being pursued or hunted? These psychological phenomena are also mental responses to stimuli. But should we assume that animals share the same cognitive and psychological responses of fear and terror that humans would exhibit if pursued or chased?

Here again a full justification or critique of sport hunting would require that we to delve more deeply into the philosophical, psychological, and behavioral literature about animal consciousness to address the very difficult questions about animal fear and terror in addition to other subjective experiences of pain and suffering.

Tait Szabo said...

A lot of interesting and relevant issues raised here. I just want to address this:

“(a) there's a burden to provide evidence on both sides of the argument. I don't think opponents of animal use can simply assume prima facie that all animal use is morally wrong.”

I agree there is a burden on both sides, but the burden is not an equal one. Opponents of animal use can assume that non-human animals have at least some moral standing, and, given that, they can also likely assume that it is prima facie wrong to cause the suffering of non-human animals. To deny any moral standing to non-human animals probably requires acceptance of far too many practices or behaviors (consider torturing kittens for fun: if kittens have no moral standing, then I do no moral wrong to them when I stick needles in their eyes—isn’t that absurd?).

Even if the difficulties surrounding the notions of animal pain, suffering, harm and death are admitted, as you point out once yourself, they are not problems only for non-human animals (“Is death a harm to animals? That question is difficult enough when applied to humans.”). The relevant conceptual difficulties seem insufficient to shift the heavier burden of proof to the opponents of animal use, just as they would be in the case of causing harm to humans.

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