When I first started hunting, a friend told me a story about how, before the days of cell-phones and websites, hunters used to take their deer to check-in stations. As my friend was waiting for his turn, an excited hunter told him, “This is my first deer!”
“Oh,” my friend said, “let me see.”
So the other hunter took him over to his truck and revealed his animal. “That’s not a deer. It’s a goat!” The newbie hunter’s eyes got wide. He looked again at the sacrificed animal, glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed, then he jumped into his truck and drove off.
The most famous and quoted sentence from Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting, is as follows: “one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted” (Ortega, 105). People often appeal to this quote to lend authority to the view that killing is essential to the hunt: that one can’t have hunting without the intention to kill because that is just part of what it is to hunt. However, that is not what the sentence means, and Ortega thinks the interpretation is false.
We know that he thinks that the claim “Hunting requires the intent to kill” is false, for two reasons. First, he insists that hunting without the intention to kill is also hunting. In the chapter The Essence of Hunting, where he defines hunting, he notes, “Killing is not the exclusive purpose of hunting. There are kinds of hunting that consist in ‘bringing the animal back alive,’ and early men who domesticated animals tried to take them without killing them” (Ortega, 58). Later he also mentions those who hunt animals for zoos.
Further, Ortega’s famous line contradicts his real definition of hunting. “Hunting is what an animal does to take possession, dead or alive, of some other being that belongs to a species basically inferior to its own” (Ortega, 62). The phrase “dead or alive” explicitly denies that the hunt must intend to end in the kill. Ortega, therefore, believes the claim that “Hunting requires the intent to kill,” is false.
Not surprisingly, that is not what Ortega meant. The famous passage occurs in the chapter called The Ethics of Hunting where Ortega is distinguishing utilitarian hunting and sport hunting. Utilitarian hunters include subsistence hunters, poachers, and anyone who hunts to eat. Sport hunters aren’t dependent on hunting for their food; they hunt for the enjoyment of hunting. In other words, the means and the ends of the two kinds of hunting are inversely related. What is a means for one is an end for the other, and what is an end for one is a means for the other. Specifically, the utilitarian hunter hunts to kill. By contrast, the sport hunter, “does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, [the sport hunter] kills in order to have hunted” (Ortega, 105). There it is.
Ortega notes that for Plato, “defining is always like capturing a thing” (Ortega, 139). To fail in your definition is akin to failing to get anything. To get your definition wrong, however, is to think you have a deer when you actually have a goat.
Gregory A. Clark is a sport hunter and a traditional philosopher. He teaches at North Park University in Chicago, IL.