Hunting Ethics: After Killing a Thousand Ducks, Can You Still Respect Them?

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Dr. Michael P. Nelson of Michigan State University
Our current feature about Jeff Foiles, a convicted celebrity waterfowl hunter, has kicked up a dust-storm among readers who vehemently disagree about the ethics of hunting.

We turned to Dr. Michael P. Nelson, an associate professor in both the philosophy and wildlife departments at Michigan State University, to guide us through the deeper issues.

Daily RFT: Many life-long hunters (such as Jeff Foiles) have killed literally thousands of ducks. But is that incompatible with respecting them?

Dr. Michael P. Nelson: Well, it's a psychological question: Does killing make us ethically numb? I don't think it does.

In fact, it is common to see [hunters] who later in their lives have a real struggle, where they think, 'I just can't keep doing this.' It's not clear why, or what's going on when that happens. But clearly there's some tension between hunting and what they think of as respect for animals.

Right now, our Western system is dominated by the idea that you can't kill something and respect it at the same time. But I think if you look at native cultures, you see that [it's possible]. The actions are the same that kill animals, but they also respect them as individuals. They had systems of thought that allowed them to do it. 

Our Western worldview doesn't?

In our system, endangered populations matter, for example, but we don't know what to do about the moral standing of individuals.

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What's the moral standing of this duck?
So we say things like, 'You don't torture animals,' and 'You don't ridicule them on film' and 'You shoot to kill, not to wound.'  We say a lot of things that seem to be inclusive of non-human individual animals.

But we still find troubling those systems of thought [such as some forms of veganism] that suggest that animals have direct moral standing.
So my main argument is, I don't think our philosophy of these things is very mature at this point. We don't how to put these things together.

Do you hunt?

As much as I can. I haven't hunted in quite a while, but I'm in [the hunting] camp. That's why I'm critical of that camp, because I want that camp to have everything together.

I'm a newbie waterfowler. For me it's still very hard to ring a duck's neck if it's wounded.  In fact, I'll admit to getting all Avatar about it and telling them (in my head) something like, 'Thanks, brother.'
The moment we don't think it's hard, we're doing something wrong. What you're starting to articulate is this notion of gratitude. That's exactly the kind of idea that could manifest itself in an ethic that would allow us to hunt.

And that's one of the things that you see among natives: That this animal is a gift. You can take it, but you have an obligation to reciprocate in some way. Gift exchange is a really powerful and different kind of ethical relationship, and I think that could find a seed in the Western World as well. 

What do you make of the many hunting DVDs and cable shows (such as those on The Outdoor Channel)?  

I don't want to overstate this, but if you really internalize an ethic of reverence and gratitude, you might be less inclined to have something a public video that involves killing animals. You might not think that's appropriate.

I don't know, I think that's an interesting thought experiment. Would somebody that embodies that ethic do a show? What would it look like? Would it look different? We might have fewer shows like that. I really don't know.

Click here to read the article, co-written by Dr. Nelson, entitled, "The Ethics of Hunting: Can We Have Our Animal Ethics and Eat Them Too?"

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Use this simple method to quickly and ethicly dispatching crippled birds.  Hold the bird by grabbing its back with your hand. Firmly squeeze the birds ribs, just behind and under the wings. Doing so collapses the lungs and the bird will expire in a seconds.  Tough to do with geese, but works great on dove, ducks, and pheasant. 


Killing does not make a person ethically numb.  Killing unethically (like Jeff Foiles) makes a person ethically numb.  What did Jeff do that was unethical a non-hunter might ask? -  He took pleasure in torture, not hunting.  A sign of deep psychological issues. -  He harvested far more animals than he needed (and in violation of the legal limits) for food or even to give to others as such. -  He did not have a pressing need to hunt for food or to provide it to others and likely did not consume even 5% of the animals he harvested. -  In his zeal to kill he created collateral damage by killing his best friends hunting dog and damaging his personal relationships with other people. -  He damaged the traditions and ethics of hunting by videotaping his exploits resulting in poor example and education of other hunters and future hunters, etc., etc. Personally there is no tension or struggle for me between hunting, when it is done ethically and for ethical reasons, and respecting animals. Whether you eat meat or are a vegan you are killing to live (last time I checked plants are alive).  If human life is equal to all other forms within the pantheon of life on this planet than is it so hard to think that other creatures that kill to eat would begrudge us doing the same?  If humans are no better or worse than their animal brethren than why do some suggest that we must respect the other forms of life on this planet and be a “steward” for the other forms of life in some uber-special way? The question of whether or not you can kill 1000 ducks and still respect them remains poignant whether or not you’re talking about 1 duck, 1000 ducks, or killing anything at all.  It has everything to do with whether or not you think humans are special in a way that places them above other forms of life on this planet or not.  What’s interesting is that regardless of how you answer that question, humans still have the right to hunt and kill...either because they’re no better or worse than the other forms of life on the planet or because we are in some fundamental way better with the privilege to use the planet's resources in the way we wish. I take the latter view.  Homo sapiens are special in a way that separates us (although not by much) from the pantheon of life on this planet.  Our uniqueness gives us the ability to harvest the planet’s resources for our survival and growth.  We must ensure that this is done ethically and sustainably, not for the sake of the life on this planet, but for our own sake so that we do not jeopardize our existence.  After all, ethics is a human invention and ensuring human survival is the most ethical thing of all.

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