This seems to be one of those topics that many hunters want to talk about, but don’t know where to begin. Ethics are important because they guide your own behavior afield, but they also inform your decisions on rulemaking and laws passed. Ethics are often cited as deeply personal and as varied as the number of hunters. However, it is when a growing number of hunters who share the same ethic and rally behind it that change impacts the entire hunting community.
In 1888, the Boone and Crockett Club, led by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, adopted a definition of Fair Chase in a time when there were strikingly few wildlife laws. The response from many hunters was a cry of overreach by aristocratic sportsmen who did not depend on wildgame to feed their families. However, the Club stayed the course and today the concept of fair chase (which was modernized in 2013 and continues to be updated) has been codified around the country in game laws.
The sportsmen who are looking to develop their own hunting ethics will have to look to past works for most of the heavy lifting. Recent articles that tend to focus on current situations and specific events are good indicators of how hunters employ ethics today. Foundations in hunting principles and a development of ethical thought requires digging deeper into some forgotten authors.
José Ortega y Gasset was an early twentieth century Spanish philosopher whose work focused on the “perceptions of human life.” His Meditations on Hunting was written in 1942 and is easily the most frequently quoted author on hunting ethics. “One does not hu
nt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted” sums up the struggle of the Hunter’s Paradox. Simple truths like this one are timeless and memorable. Ortega’s style is direct as writes on various topics a hunter would find himself reflecting on. Finding a copy of Meditations can be difficult, but if you are able to purchase one, it is worth the price. If you were to read one book on hunting ethics, this should be it.
James Swan’s In Defense of Hunting helps to really define the relationship hunters have with the animals hunted. As he reflects on his own experiences he draws on the spiritual and psychological elements that coalesce into an ethos of hunting. Hunter’s have a great love and reverence for wild things and wild places that inspires us to pursue and protect experiences found there. Hunting has an emotional quotient that cannot be ignored and Swan helps to organize them to be understood by non-hunters.
Hunter’s Heart is a collection of essays by popular authors, a U.S. president, philosopher, and conservationists that really try to define the “why” of hunting. These biographical essays share the experiences that introduced a hunter to the pursuit for the fir
st time or revealed to them what the hook was that grabbed other hunters. These insights prove that there is far more to a hunter than killing an animal. Mike Gaddis speaks about his time in the woods in an article that originally appeared in Audubon (not a traditional hunting publication), “hunters who truly love the woods and wild things come to revere such moments of privilege.” Many of the essays also help to make the distinction between conservation and preservation and how sportsmen’s use of resources can protect them for future generations.
This last recommend
ation is not well known, but the thesis has been taught in hunter education classes for decades. Dr. Bob Norton taught psychology at the University of Michigan and after years of research and interviewing thousands of hunters he drew severa
l conclusions on who hunters were in The Hunter. He boiled it down to the Five stages of Sportsmen development. New sportsmen want to shoot anything while seasoned sportsmen focus on the method of the hunt. Hunters in the last stage have found enjoyment in the hunt with no need to prove anything either to themselves or others. This is helpful for sportsmen who are looking to elevate their own hunting to know what stage of their hunting career to reflect on.
These are certainly not the only good resources for hunting ethics, but they do give a good place to start for those who are looking for a more robust discussion on the subject. Discovering how other sportsmen have wrestled with the same ideas as you can help to clarify your own thoughts and expose you to concepts not previously considered. Hopefully their reflections will make you a more thoughtful hunter.