As I’ve talked about before, vegans are stereotyped as overly-emotional hippies that can’t think rationally. Compared to the 90% or so of people that aren’t at least vegetarian, I suppose this is partly true, insofar as objecting to needless killing renders one “overly-emotional.”
Though many of us are far more reasonable than we get credit for, there are some things I feel the vegan community could be more forward-thinking about. One of those things is hunting.
I should state at the outset that I find hunting morally objectionable, and I wonder if engaging in such a practice hints at an underlying tendency for violence — or, at least, a deficient capacity for sympathy — in those who do it. I’d like to live in a world where there is no hunting.
That said, hunting is a hell of a lot better than getting your meat from the grocery store.
The faceless, boneless, cold and packaged slab of meat purchased at Costco belonged to an animal that certainly lived a wretched life by any meaningful standard. Many omnivores prefer it this way — they openly admit they could never kill an animal themselves. They prefer to outsource the dirty work so they don’t have to think about it; otherwise, it makes them uncomfortable, as is comically displayed in the video below.
Hunting, on the other hand, typically involves killing an unsuspecting animal that has lived its life in the wild, perhaps completely free from human interaction. The hunter sneaks up on it, or sits still and avoids detection until he or she has a clear shot. Ideally, the animal dies quickly, experiencing fear and pain and suffering for a couple of minutes or less.
This is certainly preferable to the life of an animal that grows up on a factory farm, where 95% of egg-laying hens live in battery cages, where pigs are typically kept in cages so small they can’t turn around, and so on. Simply put, animal welfare considerations are at odds with farmers’ economic interests; a smaller space means more animals, which in turn allows farmers to carve out a profit — something that seems to become harder by the year.
So animals in the wild — deer, moose, turkeys — live the majority of their lives in far better circumstances than the cows, pigs, and chickens of the world. The last couple of minutes may be brutal no matter which species you are or where you happen to be killed, to be sure. And I believe that it is wrong to unnecessarily end a life even if the process is truly painless. But if the choice is between buying meat from factory farms and hunting, I think the option that involves less suffering is the more reasonable one.
Of course, we vegans are quick to point out that this “better of two evils” is a false dichotomy. The third option is to not kill animals for food, since it is unnecessary and cruel. I’m not advocating that we encourage people to hunt, I’m saying let’s understand that hunters are at the very least looking their food in the eye before killing it, and that’s a responsibility most omnivores are unwilling to take on.
I’m personally repulsed by the idea of killing an animal (one that’s not a spider, at least). And despite what I said above, I’m suspect of the psychiatric stability of those who aren’t. Here I am reminded of a version of the Trolley Problem, discussed in a previous post. In the classic version, a train is barreling down the tracks and will hit and kill five people, unless you pull a lever to divert the train to hit and kill one person. Participants are questioned as to whether they believe pulling the lever is the right thing to do. Most people, in this version, believe it is.
In a different version, the train is again barreling down the tracks, set to kill five people. You are on a bridge above the tracks next to a large man. Your choice is to either watch the train kill the five people or to push the man next to you off the bridge to stop the train, killing him in the process. In this circumstance, most people no longer believe the right thing to do is to sacrifice one to save five. The physical contact, it seems, is what separates this version of the Trolley Problem from the classic one. Nevertheless, the utilitarian calculus remains the same: one death is better than five.
A recent article published by Quillette, on Utilitarianism’s Missing Dimensions, author Erik Parens, describes the hype following the Trolley Problem’s introduction into the world:
According to the ethical theory of utilitarianism, refusing to push the strange man is unethical. In both scenarios, the ethical action is to sacrifice one to save five. Based on what Greene and his colleagues observed when subjects were faced with the two sorts of scenarios in an fMRI machine, they concluded that activity in the emotional part of the brain was getting in the way of most subjects making the right utilitarian judgment. Pushing the strange man engaged emotions in a way that pulling the lever did not. After the publication of that report, sacrificial dilemmas of this sort started to get so much attention that it began to seem that a willingness to do harm to others was the core of utilitarianism.
In case you are not yet uncomfortable, consider that neuroimaging studies have shown that psychopaths tend to be far better at making the “right” decision in this circumstance.
In introducing a new paper challenging this approach to utilitarianism, Parens describes how we should think of utilitarianism as having two dimensions: “impartial beneficience,” and “instrumental harm.” The first, described as “taking the view of the universe” and taking into consideration only the outcome of an event and not the process, is at odds with the second, which is the willingness to engage in direct harm in order to maximize beneficience.
Indeed, the missing dimension is apparent when considering the hunter; although hunters are, by and large, not engaging in the practice strictly out of concern for farmed animals, they are in the end avoiding contributing to an industry where the typical animal suffers from day one.
Less suffering is always a better outcome than more suffering, but there is some legitimacy to the tendency to think of hunters as cruel, soulless people. Some of them probably are. But in the end, each animal they kill out in the forest is one less lifetime of suffering on a farm. We should recognize that.