In an online blog titled “Meat Manifesto: The Future of Hunting Depends On Our Advocacy of Wild Protein,” wildlife scientist, conservationist, and proponent of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, Shane Mahoney, has offered his view on what is necessary for the survival of hunting. According to Mahoney we should focus on the value of wild meat. His reasoning is that wild meat is better nutritionally, and that wild protein needs wild places, which are ecologically more healthy for everyone. While I agree with Mahoney that one of the benefits of hunting is high quality meat and healthy ecosystems, I wonder: Is this really the point we want to stress in order to ensure the survival of hunting or the animals and places we hunt? I don’t believe it is, mainly for two reasons.

First, many of the problems facing hunting are moral issues, and Mahoney’s stance does provide a moral position. The problem is that it is mainly one of self-interest. Given his position, the animals and ecosystems are given moral consideration only insofar as they can be sources of meat. They have value only as a means to an end, or only instrumental value. What this means is that without direct consideration, they are replaceable by anything that can provide the same quality and quantity of nutrition. Environmental effects being equal, organic beef, chicken, soy, dietary supplements, or a combination thereof would then become adequate substitutes for the nourishment hunting provides. Hence, his position ultimately does not ensure the survival of hunting or the animals and ecosystems. I don’t believe this is what Mahoney wants, nor do I believe his position captures the moral issue behind hunting. The ultimate survival of wildlife and hunting cannot be ensured without direct moral consideration, and virtue seems to entail direct consideration and respect of others (that is as more than a means to an end). Therefore, Mahoney’s position is neither desirable, nor is it an accurate portrayal of the values most people hold towards the biotic community.

Second, as Mahoney’s stance does not provide direct consideration to others, hunters are left open to attack by the animal welfare crowd (animal rights and animal liberation collectively). The main point of animal welfare is that animals do deserve direct moral consideration (that is as more than a means to an end). Many differ on how this consideration should be given, but the main point remains for all. Without adequately addressing the many times legitimate concerns of animal welfare, hunting’s future is dubious, and, as I will show, the animal welfare crowd is not to be feared.

To that end, I would like to offer a solution that is prefaced on carnivory. I’m not going to debate the matter of vegetarianism here for matters of space and time allotted. Suffice it to say, dietetics and the scientific method have not convinced me that soy, yeast, and peanuts are adequate substitutes for venison in quality, quantity, or morality; nor does eating meat necessarily mean animals are merely a means to an end. It is primarily to the last two concerns that my arguments are directed.

Prefaced on carnivory, there are at least three ways to address the moral issue of hunting:

The first is a utilitarian defense that compares the suffering from farm-raised animals to the suffering inflicted by hunting. 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 argument to make this point, empathy and the golden rule may be enough. Take a look at the average barn yard or commercial facility: Animals confined in pens and stantions, stressed to a psychological breaking point, knee deep in their own excrement waiting to be fed, and valued primarily as a commodity. Now take a look at the dignity and sanitation the woods and hunting provides. In which manner would you rather live and die? A problem with this line of reasoning is that utilitarianism is mostly a cost benefit analysis, and some philosophers believe it does not address morality. That is, it may be prudent to hunt given the lesser amount of suffering (or ecological harm consistent with Mahoney), but the morality of taking a life is left unaddressed. Thus, this line of reasoning may prove unfruitful for the survival of hunting.

The second line of reasoning is arguments that portray hunting as means to a higher end. Variations of this reasoning are numerous: Hunting results in ecological stability and health by reducing game populations, hunting contributes to conservation (per the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation), hunting teaches ecological lessons, spiritual awareness or growth, moral growth and environmental virtue, etc. In all these arguments hunting is a means for attaining each of these ends. Hence, hunting is only justified so long as an adequate substitute cannot be found for attaining these ends. Therefore, these arguments will not ultimately ensure the survival of hunting. Furthermore, as the current form of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAMWC) relies heavily on hunter support (almost exclusively, in fact), these arguments and the NAMWC may also prove to be inadequate for ensuring the survival of wildlife and ecosystems. But this is true of any argument portraying hunting or wildlife as the means to a higher end. The survival of something as a means is always tenuous–there is almost always more than one way to do something.

The third, and I believe the most promising defense, is a more fundamental moral defense founded on respect, direct consideration, and what it means to treat something as more than a means to an end. When we treat others as more than a means, it means they have value independent of, or primarily and in addition to our use for them. This is direct moral consideration, and it is what philosophers call “intrinsic value.” Pragmatically, what this means is that animals and ecosystems are not replaceable, as their ultimate survival is ensured on moral grounds, just because. Sentiments of love and respect often find the mark for a description of intrinsic value, and it is this sort of consideration that we should strive towards: for both pragmatic and moral reasons.

What intrinsic value and direct consideration do not entail is a “no-use” mentality, and this is where many (especially the animal welfare masses) falter. Consider an example. We value people in part for the jobs they do, that is, as a means to an end. Doctors, soldiers, teachers, farmers, factory workers, nurses, plumbers, etc. all have value for the services they provide (I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency between hunting and the jobs people have, just pointing to the melding of use with respect). However, this utility is not their only, nor is it their primary value. We respect people first and foremost for who and what they are: beings worthy of our respect and moral consideration. This means that a person’s life is not contingent upon his or her usefulness to us. This is what it means to treat someone or something as more than a means to an end, and I believe hunters already do this with animals and hunting.

Under the fair chase ethic, hunted animals are left free to fulfill their own ends, purposes, and desires until that fateful day when they are killed for food or die of old age. They are treated as beings with their own ends and purposes, capable of choosing and deciding for themselves. Hunted animals are valued for what and where they are, not as a commodity or for what they could be with “proper” nutrition and genetics. That is, they are treated first and foremost as more than a means to an end. Some may call this respect.

Under the clean kill ethic, hunted animals are given direct moral consideration in another manner. Their suffering is seen as morally significant, and we hunters believe it should be minimized. Many times, the opportunity for a clean shot and the minimized suffering this would entail is the deciding factor of whether an animal is killed. Again, some may call this respect.

Hunting itself is also the beneficiary of this sort of thinking. If there were nothing of intrinsic value to hunting, then gardening, supermarkets, and hiking trips would be an adequate substitute. Many of us feel the need to get our sustenance by wilder, less abstract, and more practical means. Furthermore, rather than being objectified and treated as a resource, cohort, commodity, or scenery, hunting uniquely and intrinsically “subjectifies” the animals and ecosystems through a personal and meaningful relationship. They become a part of us, literally and figuratively. Furthermore, there is constant debate about the ethics of hunting and sportsmanship. For all these reasons, the process of hunting is clearly more than a means to our nourishment or entertainment.

What’s more, intrinsic value does not mean that use and respect can be separated. In fact, they may be two heads of the same coin. How can we not value what we depend upon for our very lives? And do people without a purpose, niche, or another value to others ever really feel whole? Feelings of uselessness can often breed despair. Furthermore, intrinsic value can be overridden (in much the same way as someone’s rights can be overridden or taken away), but not without good reason. Hunting for food may be a good reason, hunting for money, trophies, or entertainment may not. What intrinsic value or direct moral consideration does entail is that when we kill, eat, or otherwise use animals (or any other being) there is a cost involved, and that their lives are not solely contingent upon their value as food, sport, money, or entertainment. They have value just because. That’s it, and this is the sort of consideration the animal welfare folks (among others) are after. I find much common ground with them, as should many hunters.

Acknowledging intrinsic value or direct moral consideration for hunting and the biotic community will ensure the survival of hunting as well as wildlife and ecosystems. Without it, we, the animals we hunt, and the places we hunt are all doomed. I believe as hunters we already do attribute intrinsic value, but there is more work to be done. The NAMWC that has been creating so much buzz makes the existence of the biotic community contingent upon their utility to us. That is to say, the NAMWC makes conservation and the interests of the biotic community almost exclusively dependent upon hunting. This is a mistake for the same reasons valuing a person solely for his/her job is a mistake: there is no intrinsic, fundamental moral value to ensure the survival of hunting or the animals and places we care about. The biotic community and hunting must be treated as more than a means to our ends to ensure their survival. After all, the ultimate survival of the biotic community and hunting is what we are all after.

Many thanks to Dr. Michael P. Nelson for his help and support in fleshing out these ideas.

Author Bio: Wisconsin bowhunter Ryan W. Theiler has a degree in philosophy and environmental ethics from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.