The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre wrote about what he called being in good faith. For Sartre freedom is a fundamental characteristic of our very being, hence we are responsible for our actions. The only thing one is not responsible for is his/her freedom. Our freedom is a fact of life, and we just have to accept it. Even whether one lives or dies, according to Sartre, is a choice. To acknowledge one’s freedom and accept responsibility for choices is to be in good faith, and to deny one’s freedom is to live in bad faith. Sartre claimed that humans flee from their freedom and desire to be an object, or have one’s actions determined and justified by other causes. One can see a basis for this claim in much of classical and contemporary ethics with its focus on necessity (i.e., doing that which is necessary or only that which is necessary) and determined actions (biological or divine). When used to deny choice and responsibility, this too is bad faith.
So what does this mean for hunting? What better way is there to acknowledge action as a choice than to exercise one’s volition? And what better way to affirm life as a choice than to hunt for one’s sustenance?
One cannot hunt without exercising a significant amount of volition. When a stand is selected and patience practiced, the hunter has made a choice. When a bow is pulled to full draw and an arrow is loosed, the hunter has done this with his every fiber. All of this takes a tremendous amount of focus and concentration. In Coyote Soul, Raven Heart, Reg Darling writes of this concentration. “With a traditional bow, I have to pour myself into every shot to shoot at all well… This is as it should be.” (Darling, 168). Put another way, the concentration required to hunt, and hunt successfully, is the exercise of one’s volition. Hunting, which relies less on gadgetry and more on skill, tends to augment the exercise of one’s volition, and the claim can be made, the more volition is exercised, the more action and consequences are conscious, the more responsibility is felt, hence the closer one is to good faith. In an article titled The Modern Hunter-Gatherer Michael Pollan writes of responsibility driving his desire to hunt: “And I have long felt, as a meat eater, I should, at least once, take responsibility for the killing that meat eating entails.” (Pollan, New York Times, 2006) Maybe this is why so many of us are drawn to the use and craft of traditional or primitive weapons. Quite simply, it requires mindful participation. It makes sense to me.
One cannot hunt without confronting death, and to acknowledge what it means to be a carnivore in existential terms is invaluable. If continuing one’s life is a choice (I should say not to mention continuing of one’s life as a choice in certain company… I nearly got locked up for doing as much), then there are certain things to be done. One of the primary choices is food, and hunting provides meaningful nourishment. Reg Darling writes about the meat he eats: “The meat matters. It is the umbilical cord that connects the hunter to Mother Earth.” (Darling, 170) I, like you, choose to be a carnivore (luckily we have that option), and every fall I exercise that choice.
With choice comes responsibility, and the choice of carnivory brings with it some interesting implications. What is the hunter responsible for? The hunter is responsible for taking a life. When done for sustenance, the hunter is responsible for him/herself. We are fond of saying “the blood is on our hands”, and this puts the point quite well. The blood is on our hands, and this is something I can live with, because I know the animals I hunt have been treated with respect. What may not be so obvious is that by making the choice for wild meat, we have also taken responsibility for the life the animal lived, which includes the habitat.
The role of hunters in the conservation and management of North American wildlife is well documented. Hunters have worked hand-in-hand for the benefit of wildlife. Our license fees and taxes on our ammunition and gear go toward this cause. To that end, hunters are responsible for the conservation of wildlife and their habitat.
In his paper Considerations on the Morality of Meat Consumption: Hunted Game versus Farm-Raised Animals, Donald W. Bruckner makes the case that on average, there is less suffering for hunted animals than for farm-raised animals, hence “eating meat from hunted game animals is morally preferable to eating meat from farm-raised animals.” (Bruckner, 2007) It may not take a philosophical paper to make this point, empathy may be enough. Take a look at the average barnyard or commercial facility, and take a look at the woods. Which would you rather live in? And if I were a deer, I know I would prefer to be killed by a hunter rather than by wolves or at a slaughter house. To that end, the hunter is responsible for the humane treatment of animals.
The self, habitat, the life lived in freedom, and a respectful and humane death: In a comprehensive sense, the hunter is responsible for all of these, and they are all results I can live with. As hunters, exercising our choice to be carnivores brings life, death, freedom, and responsibility into focus, and to my way of thinking, puts us squarely in good faith.