There has been much debate about moral consideration, that is, what entities are to be considered as worthy of moral consideration. Perhaps the most famous, and relevant to hunting, are the animal welfare ethics of Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Regan, a rights theorist, and Singer, a utilitarian, argue that animals deserve moral consideration, because they are sentient. Others, such as Albert Schweitzer, have gone further, arguing that we ought to have a “reverence for life”, thereby including plants, and presumably fungi, microbes, etc. Still others, such as Aldo Leopold, have argued that soils, waters, and all members of the biotic community ought to be considered. The task seems to have been one of increasing one’s moral community. That is, increasing the scope of what one considers to be morally relevant. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold remarks on this phenomenon: “The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals…Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and the society…The extension of ethics to this third element [the biotic community] in human environment is…an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” (Leopold, 202-203) This is called moral extensionism, and is, in essence, a task of extending our moral predilections to include the biotic community in the equation.

In an essay titled Moral Considerability and Universal Consideration, Thomas Birch has commented on the very question of moral considerability. He claims that the question itself, no matter how well intentioned, has at its core a distinct group of entities which count, another group that does not, and a presupposition that this moral exclusivity and superiority is legitimate. Birch equates this to “imperial power mongering.” Put another way, as a professor of mine once told me, in legal terms this is equivalent to saying the biotic community is guilty until proven innocent. In short, the burden of proof has historically fallen on those claiming the biotic community counts, rather than on those who claim it does not. Birch suggests we should do away with the question of moral considerability altogether, and I think he has put his finger on something hunters struggle with when confronted with arguments for animal welfare ethics. Namely, that theories dealing with inclusive ethics typically have a point at which they stop consideration, and this does not jibe with the experiences hunters have in relating to the whole of the biotic community. Perhaps this is why hunters struggle to find the words when we are accused of being callous, uncaring, or only caring about those animals we hunt. Quite simply, none of these typical accusations are true. Hunters do feel obligations toward the animals we hunt. In Woman the Hunter, Mary Zeiss Stange calls this “blood-knowledge.” “With such recognition of interconnectedness comes a kindred sense of reciprocity, of ‘mutual obligation’ grounded in a sense of affection and respect. This is blood-knowledge.” (Stange, 123) We do care about the places in which we hunt: the track record of hunters and conservation of habitat is well documented. And we do care about other animals, at least I do. Hunters care about hunting itself, and this often includes spiritual and aesthetic concerns. It seems to me much of the problem has been that there isn’t a sufficient ethical framework to account for the considerations we feel, or maybe questions of animal welfare ethics seem incomplete and a bit wrong-headed. Birch has some insights on this.

Birch suggests a way out of the question of moral considerability by changing what one thinks of as the primary meaning of “consideration.” Birch cites the Oxford English Dictionary stating that “to consider something is (1) ‘to view or contemplate it attentively’ and/or (2) ‘to show regard, respect for, to think highly of it, or to give it positive value.'” (Birch, 327) Birch believes we have gotten away from the first definition and have gone too far toward the second one; believing the second can be separated from the first. This can result in a sort of paralysis of action if all things are to be given a priori positive value. Birch suggests we incorporate the first definition and then goes on to conclude that “…the primary meaning of giving [moral] consideration is thoughtful, reflective, meditative attentiveness.” (Birch, 327) Birch calls this “deontic experience”, and any hunter knows what this is. In Meditations on Hunting Jose Ortega y Gasset provides a useful parallel on the hunters’ mindset.

    The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style–an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a “universal” attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points…There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man. (Ortega y Gasset, 138)

In Coyote Soul, Raven Heart, Reg Darling echoes this sentiment. “A close encounter with prey summons you to an intensely elevated awareness, and that is your ample reward, the most you can earn with your efforts.” (Darling, 166) Basically, being moral entails paying attention, and what one pays attention to determines how much one considers. Just think of all the things one pays attention to while hunting: terrain, bottlenecks, feeding areas, bedding areas, vegetation, wind, weather, birds, other animals, etc. The list is nearly endless. Birch believes any moral obligations we may feel arise from these sorts of experiences. According to Birch, deontic experience can take many forms, but they are usually deeply meaningful and can occasionally involve epiphanies. Who among us has not had a deep insight while hunting? Birch writes of his own deontic experience while rock climbing. “It required complete attention to the rock and the manner of participating with the rock in climbing–complete immersion in, absorption into the relationship with the rock, an absorption of the sort that required complete attention to the rock itself.” (Birch, 325) Substitute “hunting” for “rock climbing” and “deer” and/or “land” for “rock” and the description of hunting is clear and accurate.

Birch, however, does not say we should completely abandon the notion of animal welfare ethics. He believes rules and systematic ethics are useful for guiding one’s day-to-day activities, but that the core of ethics hinges on an open-minded attentiveness to everything and everyone. The rules usually are not sufficient when pushed far enough. Birch writes of rules: “There is no way, or finite set of ways, to consider anything, much less everything.” (Birch, 330) For example: Rights theory, while it seems to work well for people, doesn’t quite cut it for all animals. A right to life seems in some ways unrealistic for an animal such as a rabbit that can have 40 babies a year and whose ecological niche includes being food for predators (though we certainly wouldn’t say prey animals have zero worth). Reg Darling writes: “Creatures do not have a right to freedom from predation or to liberation from the natural characteristics of their ecological niche.” (Darling, 144) And how does one balance the predators’ right to life? (I should say there is some material on this, though it is not my point here.) While one may say rabbits, or any prey species, do have certain sorts of rights, rights may have to be re-thought to account for ecological realities. Also, utilitarianism can’t easily account for the unquantifiable qualities, i.e., the aesthetics and spiritual qualities, of hunting and the biotic community. How does one assign a number or quantitative value to love? In short, at the core of universal consideration is the idea that meaningful, mindful experience is what is necessary for morality.

The main points I see as key for hunting are these: All things count, moral consideration requires attentiveness, and moral obligations are emergent, not rule driven, and thus depend upon meaningful interaction. Acknowledging that all things count allows us a framework for the legitimate concerns we may have about the places we hunt, places we do not hunt, the animals we hunt, and animals in addition to prey species. Not that we need a coherent ethical framework to validate our experience, but it’s nice to know there are ways to deal with our objectors. In short, we should give everything and everyone the benefit of the doubt, i.e. assume that they are valuable, until proven otherwise. Again, in legal terms, this translates to innocent until proven guilty.

Second, when being moral requires “thoughtful, reflective, meditative attentiveness,” this puts hunters in good standing. That is to say, being moral actually requires participating with the biotic community in a mindful and meaningful fashion, and this has long been where hunters make their mark.

Third, when moral obligations are emergent instead of rule driven, the deep and personal experiences are key to morality; this is also a place where hunters have made their mark. Leopold remarked on the importance of voluntary submission to a hunting ethic: “…the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience…It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.” (Leopold, 178) Cultivating conscience would seem to be a key component of denotic experience.

I think Birch has given some useful insights on moral consideration, I see this theory as philosophically consistent with the hunters’ mindset, and I think this topic is important for hunters to ponder.

Author Bio: Ryan makes his home in West Central Wisconsin. He enjoys reading, writing, deer hunting, and spending time in the woods with his dog, Wicket.