Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Ethics of Sport Hunting

Deer season is upon us, and to commemorate it, a Michigan news outlet has posed the question to a variety of clerics: in what context is hunting morally permissible? Four panelists offer responses.

The Jewish respondent concludes from a review of Genesis and the Law that the killing of animals required extraordinary justification but that God Himself has given such a justification. The only question that remains is how to treat those animals who will be killed. "It is acceptable to kill animals, but it is not acceptable to be callous toward animal life." The response is a laudable beginning, but it leaves so much of the heart of the question unexplored. What constitutes callousness? Killing for the sake of killing? Or is it only killing in an "inhumane" way? The rabbi gives no satisfactory answers.

The Muslim respondent provides a richer, fuller picture of his religion's ethical stance on hunting and on the slaughter of animals more generally. The result, somewhat unexpectedly, is a decidedly palatable set of rules governing both the ethical treatment of animals intended for slaughter and a strict utilitarian boundary for when such slaughter is appropriate. "Killing is not for sport but only for sustenance." Yet, even while his regulations for slaughter are better explained and (for my part) better received, his justification for killing to begin with leaves much to be desired. He states, rather matter-of-factly, that animals are going to die anyway, so it makes no difference whether they die of old age or by human hands. Curiously, the same premise could be applied to humanity, but even with Islam's decidedly different stance on justifiable violence relative to Christianity, sure no Muslim would want to argue that humans are going to die anyway so it doesn't matter whether we let them die of old age or kill them for utilitarian purposes. At least I hope not.

Next, a reverend gives the traditional and decidedly unsophisticated view of Christians throughout history. God said we could kill animals. Society says we can kill animals. What's the problem. I mean, in some cases, not killing animals is like disobeying Jesus. That's no good. Alright...it's a paraphrase and a parody, but it nevertheless represents the essential message. There is no consideration of the importance of the creation account or the Law in determining the ethical stance of Christians toward animals. Not even a mention of the eschatological place of the natural world in the Christian scheme. A personal inclination matched with a proof text remains the surest Christian hermeneutic.

The same, unfortunately, proved true for the equally unsatisfying response from the Christian vegetarian. He makes the highly dubious claim that God allows animals to be killed only because it is a necessity and that, since it is no longer a necessity, there is no justification for continuing to kill them even for food. Of course, he offers no support for the argument that the permission to use animals for food and clothing is need based nor does he demonstrate that something has fundamentally changed to remove that need. (Incidentally, he also makes the easily falsifiable claim that eating meat is more efficient.) Most importantly of all, however, he seems to be woefully ignorant of the historical fact that meat has only recently begun to play a significant role in the human diet. Precisely because it is such a painstaking and inefficient means of ingesting calories, meat has been a luxury in most cultures throughout human history. Slaughtering an animal and eating it was a significant event reserved for feasts and sacred occasions, a fact typified in the rituals of both Judaism and Islam. The notion that you can eat meat at every meal is a relatively modern, primarily American innovation.

Disappointingly, with the exception of the Muslim, none of the respondents deal directly with the question of the ethics of sport hunting. More disappointing still is the facile responses of both Christians--leading me to believe that some lazy journalist probably just found four clerics who had nothing better to do that day than answer the phone. No one gets to the root of what sport hunting is or why it might be ethically problematic. Hunting, neither out of necessity nor even with any intent to make reasonably full use of the kill, is violence for violence sake, a behavior which is difficult to justify from the viewpoint of any of the three major religions. It is the agonistic modern analog to the gladiatorial arena, only instead of the helpless slave being thrown to the lion for the amusement of the masses it is the helpless herbivore which is turned over to the heavily armed and merciless hunter to end its life for his amusement.

Hunters who love the taste of venison, who eat whatever they kill and kill only what they will eat, are on ethically safe ground. In more omnivorous days gone by, I have even gladly shared in their spoils. But the point at which hunting is undertaken exclusively or even primarily for the thrill of killing and pride in the trophy, it becomes the exclusive province of lovers of violence, about whom God is quite clear.

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