Thinking Hard About Hunting

onhuntingI myself am a hunter. But Matthew Scully’s recent dissent on hunting reminded me just how juvenile some politically correct folks are. For one thing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that, simply because Al Gore or Barbra Streisand despises something, that something is worthy of commendation. It often works out that way, I know, but it is unbecoming of a rational creature to let the Gores and Streisands of the world define virtue, even negatively.

Second, Mr. Scully’s essay was only partly an attack on hunting. Its deeper objection was to what he called the “smug insensibility” of “the Imperial Self, armed and dangerous,” of “man the all-conquering consumer facing the universe with limitless entitlements.” Hunting-bear hunting in particular- seemed to Mr. Scully to exemplify that “distinctively modern mix of sentimentality and ruthlessness” that has given us the yuppie, with his limitless self-regard, his burden of liberal pieties, his biting intolerance of all who disagree with him.

There is a lot to what Mr. Scully has to say. The question-as some of the critical letters elicited by his essay suggest-is whether hunting really deserves the obloquy he marshals against it.

One way of putting this is to ask: Whom would you trust in an emergency? Al Gore? Barbra Streisand? The yuppies who love them? Or the chap down the road who hunts on weekends? I know what I would say.

A fuller answer is contained in On Hunting, a short, charming, and deeply considered discussion of hunting to hounds (a sport very different, to be sure, from bear hunting) by the English philosopher Roger Scruton. There are three categories of people who should read this book: those who hunt; those who think they hate hunting; and those who don’t care about hunting one way or the other but whose feeling for nature has not been entirely eclipsed by the incursions of urban life. You know who you are.

Mr. Scruton’s book is part autobiography, part philosophical rumination, part polemic. The gist of the book is encapsulated in the very first sentence: “My life divides into three parts. In the first I was wretched; in the second ill at ease; in the third hunting.” The rest of the autobiography explains why. The philosophical part of On Hunting revolves around a question that is also at the center of Mr. Scully’s reflections: namely, what is man’s proper place in the order of nature? Whatever disagreements they may have about hunting, what finally places Messrs. Scruton and Scully on the same side in this debate are the fundamental convictions: that there is such a thing as an “order of nature”; that it makes sense to speak of man’s “proper” place within that order. It is our task to decide whether hunting counts as a violation of that propriety.

This brings us to the polemical part of Mr. Scruton’s book, which is directed primarily against those who seek to criminalize hunting in Britain. The essence of his argument occurs in the last dozen or so pages. “Animals,” he observes, “are not moral beings; they have neither rights nor duties, they are not sovereign over their own lives, and they can commit no crimes.” We do not arraign lions for murder or apprehend magpies for theft. Indeed, “to treat animals as moral beings is to mistreat them-it is to make demands which they could not satisfy, since they cannot understand them as demands.” Mr. Scruton is quick to add that “it does not follow, however, that we can treat animals as we wish.” The demands of morality involve pity and compassion as well as duty, and there can be, he argues, no justification for gratuitous cruelty to animals.

Is hunting a form of cruelty to animals? Mr. Scruton distinguishes rather sharply between fox hunting, where the hounds-natural predators of foxes-do the killing, and other sorts of hunting. (“Shooting and angling,” he says, “seem too much like hubris, swaggering displays of prowess made possible by mere machinery.”) About hunting to hounds, at any rate, he makes a convincing argument that the fox is “better served by hunting than by any other form of cull, and that all rival practices expose him to far more suffering.” It follows that hunting is “not just permissible . . . but morally right.”

I suspect that Mr. Scruton’s arguments about hunting to hounds could be extended to many, perhaps most, forms of hunting. The real enemy-as Mr. Scully implies and Mr. Scruton argues outright-is sentimentality: emotion that is counterfeited in the face of a moral void. “I admit that the English sentimentality over animals is rather endearing,” Mr. Scruton writes. “But it is also a vice. Animals cannot answer back. They cannot puncture our illusions. They allow us complete freedom to invent their feelings for them, to project into their innocent eyes a fantasy world in which we are the heroes, and to lay our phony passions before them without fear of moral rebuke. They are the easy option for the emotionally deprived.”

Whatever one’s attitude toward hunting, it is difficult not to be moved by Mr. Scruton’s book. This is because it is about much more than hunting. Or, as Mr. Scruton would perhaps prefer to put it, it is because hunting is about much more than hunting. It is about our rights and duties in a world where respect and reverence seem increasingly atavistic.

Mr. Scruton observes that “the suicide of nations begins” when “sentimentality prevails over sense.” He extols hunting partly because it is an antidote to sentimentality, partly because, properly pursued, it aids in the renewal of that humility before nature whose loss Mr. Scully lamented.

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