Categories: Philosophy + PoliticsPopular

Food Ethics and Why I Hunt

So, I’m a hunter—and that means I’m a killer. I end the lives of wild animals to consume them. For a human, being a killer is a pretty common thing to be, at least from a historical standpoint. But, today killing—especially direct killing—seems to arouse a host of emotional reactions in people. Some find it admirable that I kill and consume my own food. Some seem to find it a little distasteful, though being too polite, they’ll never really communicate this distaste. And some others are quite extreme and open in their disapproval: the willingly chosen blood on my hands causes them to respond with vitriol, to disparage the act of direct killing and those who take part in it—namely me.

But when I kill, I do it for a purpose. I kill because it is a more ethical way to live. As contradictory as that may sound on the face of it, it’s true.

Before I became a hunter, I was actually a vegan. Yeah, I know, it seems like a weird move to make. After reading the rest of this post, however, you will hopefully understand why I believe that veganism and conscientious hunting actually share many of the same food ethics foundations. That most vegans and hunters have a spiteful relationship—to put it mildly—somewhat bemuses me, given my path into hunting. In this post, I distill food ethics, highlighting that vegans and hunters may be much closer ideological bedfellows than either group might like to admit.

Let’s start with why I transitioned from being a normal, eat-whatever-comes-your-way meat-eater to a vegetarian, from a vegetarian to a vegan, and from a vegan to a hunter. This food-related evolution highlights all the major themes in the ethics of food.

I grew up in the Midwest, and at the time there really wasn’t any notion of ‘local food’, ‘sustainability’, or ‘animal welfare’ that my family or any of my friends’ families were aware of. We ate whatever was convenient and tasty. And that’s how most of America still eats.

When I went away to college, things like ‘the environment’ started to enter my consciousness a bit more. I read a handful of books on environmental issues, decided they were particularly interesting to me—given my new-found enjoyment of the outdoors—and decided to do a major on the topic. Through my coursework, I began to be exposed to some of the environmental ills associated with the large-scale production and consumption of animals. I learned that animal waste all too commonly finds its way into water drainages, leading to excess nutrients in the water, giant blooms of toxic algae, and ultimately the depletion of oxygen from the water and massive wildlife die offs (see here). I learned that belching from the rumen of cattle produces substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas (here). And I learned that the mass application of antibiotics to animals in these settings risked the development of antibiotic resistant supergerms (Science). In short, I learned that a lot of practices associated with raising the numbers of animals required to sate our voracious collective taste for meat led to direct environmental harm.

So, I decided to eat less meat at first. Then I decided to eat only white meat—chicken and turkey—and fish. Then I decided to forgo meat and fish all together and become a vegetarian. The process of becoming a full vegetarian took a couple of years from my first concern about meat to forgoing it all together. I was a vegetarian for nearly five years.

Then I became a vegan. Now that I look back on it, being a vegan and not a vegetarian made so much logical sense it’s amazing that I didn’t do it sooner. And then I remember… I just couldn’t give up cheese. Vegetarians get to enjoy some of the guilty little pleasures of life—like cheese and ice cream—that vegans forego for the sake of internal consistency. I’m a lover of consistency, so eventually I decided to give up all animal products and transition to a fully vegan diet. Doing so really wasn’t too terribly difficult practically—just stop buying those things at the grocery store. Giving up cheese was harder, but I did it.

Why do I think that veganism is more internally consistent than vegetarianism, and why did I transition to it? Well, as I see it there are three main reasons for anyone to choose a conscientious approach to the consumption of meat: environment, health, and animal welfare. If someone decides to become a vegetarian for environmental reasons, as I did, they’re left with the reality that their consumption of dairy and egg products still causes large-scale environmental degradation. Lots of chickens have to be fed to produce the amounts of eggs we consume, and those chickens do lots of pooping. Whole hordes of dairy cattle sit belching from their rumens to produce the beloved milk that makes the cheese vegetarians so enjoy. In short, while being a vegetarian is better, there’s still a lot of room for improvement on the environmental front.

On the health front, if one is concerned about the potential health effects of animal products, dairy and eggs should be just as concerning as meat. I, for one, am mildly concerned about the possible health effects of the antibiotics and hormones used in rearing the animals and am not concerned in the slightest about the direct health effects of dairy (saturated fat) or eggs (cholesterol), but that’s a topic for another blog post.

And on the animal welfare front, it’s really a bit hard to argue that a diet including dairy and eggs from normal sources doesn’t induce a substantial amount of animal suffering. All one needs to do is look at a hidden camera shot within a dairy or egg farm to make that connection crystal clear.1

Veganism, then, was the ideal choice to satisfy my concerns about the environment, animal welfare, and (to a lesser extent) health. I was a vegan for a bit over a year (except on my research travels to Africa, where such food preferences would border on the edge of insanity for a variety of reasons). But, though there are many vegans who will argue the opposite is true for them, after giving up animal proteins for almost a year, I started to miss them. I don’t mean ‘miss them’ in the sense of yearning for them in a romantic ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have a sharp cheddar with this wine’ sort of way. It was more like: ‘damn, I really feel like I need some animal protein in my diet… something feels off’. On all accounts, I had enough protein and micro and macro-nutrients in my diet. I was sleeping enough, working out, basically doing what I always have done. But I was feeling less energetic and had very common cravings for meat. I didn’t really yearn for the taste of meat, even, but the physical consumption of it.2

So, I decided to try to find a way to satisfy my wish for semi-regular meat consumption with my environmental and animal welfare concerns. I could find local farmers who raise their own animals humanely, organically, and thoughtfully and buy from them. And, I did and still do that. I get chickens from a local farmer that pastures them and eggs from another local farmer that has chickens effectively as her de-facto pets. This method minimized the environmental impact and animal suffering of my animal consumption, but it still left me one step removed from the process. While I do trust that the local farmers are doing all that they say they are, I can never really be sure. Moreover, I still felt detached from the process. Couldn’t I more directly procure my animal products?

One option would be to raise animals myself. But, given that I live in a city-center, that’s not really an option for me right now. Another option: go out onto wild lands and hunt for animals to eat. Those animals are guaranteed to have lived as ‘free range’ of a lifestyle as is possible for them, to be organically fed (as long as they aren’t eating crops from chemically intensive farms), and to have lived a life free from human-induced suffering. The more I thought about the option, the more I liked it. I decided to go for it. The difficulty of learning how to hunt from scratch was something that inspired me to write this blog, and that topic is fuel for a whole other series of posts.

Jackrabbit makes for very tasty wild-game when prepared correctly.

In short, I chose to hunt because I care about the impact of my consumption on the environment and upon animal welfare. I hunt because I chose to be a conscientious consumer of meat. I think this process of ethical discernment hasn’t left too many holes through which I can be assailed as ‘unethical’ in my chosen method of procuring my food. Yet not everyone shares this view.

The arguments from the first group of naysayers are probably the easiest to discredit. These are the people who eat meat from factory farms but don’t like the idea of killing, especially of killing beautiful wild animals. I don’t want to make a straw man of their arguments, so while many of their negative responses amount to nothing more than ‘how could you kill that beautiful animal!’ while chomping down on a lamb burger (I think lambs are very beautiful animals), I’ll pick what I think to be often considered as the strongest in this camp: ‘The act of killing other animals is brutal, and doing so should be avoided.’

For any readers that have not themselves killed an animal, there is no easy way to put it: killing is indeed brutal. The process involves the taking of life from the animal, watching their animation pass into non-existence. If you’re truly tuned in, it’s a sorrowful process to see, one that is often joined for hunters with countervailing emotions like excitement and elation at success, which are coterminous with but unrelated to the sadness of death. Killing an animal provides a whirlwind of myriad complex feelings and emotions for the thoughtful hunter. It’s brutal.

Rattlesnake makes for another tasty meal.

But yet, most people who make this argument about killing being brutal are really tacitly making the argument that the killer becomes brutalized by the process of killing. And the thing is, nothing in this process of thoughtfully hunting and killing an animal is brutalizing. What is truly brutalizing is to induce the suffering and death of a beautiful animal and to be so distant from that process that the only emotions related to the consumption of meat from that animal are one of mild appreciation for the taste of the well-cooked lamb burger. The pain of seeing the life of the lamb slip away, of seeing the conditions of the animal prior to its death, and of the loss of the beauty that lamb provided is most often entirely lost on the person who is not directly involved in the killing. I’d argue that this is about as brutalizing as consumption of animal products can be.3

I really am not a fan of factory farmed meat lovers’ arguments against hunting. I’ve yet to see one that can hold water, and there are many that hold even less water than this representative argument example.

The substance from the above critique applies solidly to the second group of common naysayers—vegetarians—as well. Anyone who eats factory farmed dairy or eggs is indirectly causing the death of animals (from sickness, poor conditions, past productive age) and are is many instances causing conditions that induce animal suffering. Criticizing responsible hunters will almost certainly result in hypocrisy on the vegetarian’s part.4

On the other hand, the third group of naysayers—vegans—have one (and pretty much only one) very consistent argument against hunters: hunters kill animals and that is wrong. If you buy the argument that causing the death of animals is wrong and you avoid pretty much all way of doing so yourself, then claiming that hunters are wrong is a pretty consistent thing to do. I personally don’t think that causing the death of an animal for the purposes of consuming its resources is wrong, as long as efforts are made to ensure that death is relatively free of suffering. But, some people do believe this and act accordingly; their criticism of hunting and hunters is warranted. Unfortunately, vegans don’t just stick to this one argument. Like other opposition groups, they often make arguments that are not just related to animal death. The vast majority (all?) of these ancillary arguments are inconsistent or logically flawed in some other way. Many of the arguments amount to little more than character assassination.

In sum, unless you are a strict vegan, you should really, really reconsider before you openly or tacitly disparage hunting or hunters in general.5 You’ll almost assuredly end up being a hypocrite. If you are a strict vegan, I welcome your opposition, as long as it relates pretty much solely to animal death. Just remember that not everyone shares that ethical preference, especially once you strip away the suffering part. On the issues of environment, animal suffering, and human health hunters and vegans are much closer than either group would probably like to admit.

I hunt because it’s the best blend of my ethical code and my preference to have animal products in my diet. If you don’t hunt, why not? If you do hunt, how do you think about these issues?

  1. If you aren’t concerned about animal suffering, but would be concerned about the suffering of a severely mentally disabled person, you should definitely read Peter Singer’s argument (wiki link). It’s hard to argue that he isn’t right… in my book his argument is a sound one. However, his argument is about minimizing animal suffering, not that animals have a right to life, per say. 
  2. Though don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the taste of well cooked meat! 
  3. There is some evidence to support that those who have to do the dirty work for the lover of lamb burgers, the slaughterhouse workers, can be desensitized to suffering and in some ways brutalized. This makes great sense to me; to protect my emotional state as a slaughterhouse worker I would have to care less about the animals. But, I’d argue that slaughterhouse worker jobs are created by the demand for factory farmed meat and are just another brutalizing effect associated with that lamb burger. 
  4. A little considered fact is that in order for dairy cows to produce their milk, they must be continually impregnated. Some of the calves are female, and can then contribute to producing more milk. However, fifty percent of calves are male. These are then sent to the slaughter in one way or another. If you consume dairy, you send cows to the slaughter… no two ways about it link
  5. As in any large group of people, there are hunters that are inconsiderate, thoughtless, and mean. They give hunting and other hunters a bad name and should certainly be criticized for their anti-social anti-environmental ways. However, these hunters are in the extreme minority. Almost all hunters are of the thoughtful, food gathering type that typify what hunting is and should be all about. 
Nick :