Thursday, September 02, 2010

A Right to Hunt and Fish?

I heard in the news today that two Kentucky state representatives have pre-filed a bill proposing an amendment to the state constitution "to guarantee hunting and fishing could never be outlawed without a statewide vote first." A bit of searching revealed that some of our neighbors to the south (Tennessee) are engaged in a similar campaign. The claims in both states are that hunting and fishing are a part of the heritage and tradition of the people, a "way of life," as Rep. Greg Stumbo of Kentucky puts it. Hunting and fishing also generate state revenues (which support, it is claimed, wildlife conservation and maintenance of natural spaces: see here for example), and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation claims that the "hunting and fishing traditions are a critically important part of wildlife conservation in Tennessee."

Stumbo (Kentucky House Speaker) says, "The rights of our current sportsmen and the rights of those sportsmen in future generations ought to be protected and make it clear that the people of Kentucky want our game management practices to remain as they are today." And WEKU reports, "Stumbo claims a real threat to hunting and fishing could surface in the Commonwealth."

So far, I have not been able to identify an actual, specific threat to hunting and fishing in Kentucky or Tennessee, except for the general disdain for PETA expressed on hunting discussion boards. Thus, I sympathize with with Tennessee Rep. Johnnie Turner's doubts about whether such amendments are necessary. Also like Turner, I don't have any general objection to hunting and fishing when done as humanely as possible and in accordance with wildlife management practices that promote the sustainability of the relevant species. (But that's also a reason to be suspicious of Stumbo's claim that the game management practices should "remain as they are today." Nature is dynamic, as is society; and so trying to keep things as they are, depending on the details, could be ecologically stupid.)

At the same time, I find something about all of this--pardon the expression--fishy. I'm not much of an expert on rights, but I have reservations about a mere appeal to "tradition," "heritage," or "way of life" as a defense of an activity or practice which, it seems, is rightly subject to ethical scrutiny and regulation. Again, in saying that, I don't think ethical scrutiny implies that hunting and fishing "lose." I'm willing to be charitable and to recognize that the hunters who operate with a "shoot it if it moves" mentality are not representative of the best possibilities here. I know hunters I respect, and some I think are idiots. And while there are some interesting points made here about the possible undesirable complications of a "right to hunt," I find the characterization of hunting at the end of that article, as "killing for fun," to be somewhat naive. (See this interview with Lawrence Cahoone, who's recently published "Hunting as a Moral Good"--which I still need to read carefully. Cahoone's claim is that hunting is not best understood as a sport.)

But are hunting and fishing plausibly understood as practices that deserve the status of constitutionally protected rights? I'm just not sure, and at the end of the day, I suspect that this is all just an effort to curry favor with voters.


  1. for what it's worth, i've been told that hunting rights and associated rights of passage through property are still attached to long-standing treaties with native americans, and that they care about preserving them. i don't know about the actual politics on the ground, but it doesn't seem absurd to think that non-native americans (er…) might also want to preserve some of their naturalist and conservationist traditions via the protection of the law.

  2. Interesting post, Matt. I share in the skepticism about these purported threats to the rights of those who hunt and fish. I don't hunt anymore, though I do fish occassionally (catch and release). And the appeal to tradition, etc., as you know, is an example of fallacious reasoning discussed in any introductory logic textbook. But we don't need the humanities, do we? Just more technological knowledge and skill.

  3. j,

    I do and don't get the point of wanting to protect the tradition via the law. But this sort of activity also worries me. Think: Defense of Marriage Act. That's an example of a group of people trying to protect a tradition (they say). There are disanalogies, of course. But there's something about this proposal that strikes me as odd or scared or something. (And I don't know if the fears, if that's what they are, are justified, or merely neurotic.)

  4. i'm aware of the weakness of appeals to tradition in the face of ethical criticism or demands for ethical justification. my concern was that stepping into a political argument by casting aspersions on the very idea of protecting traditions doesn't seem that useful, unless you just plan on having nothing to do with tradition at all and don't mind helping the other side to resent you.

    (like in your next post: it's surely right that slavery's being traditional didn't make it right, but i doubt most people will read your letter as simply an example of the disconnect between custom and morality. it will instead read like: people hunt are tantamount to slavekeepers, and thus probably lose you some readers you might otherwise be able to work something out with.)

  5. j,

    That's a good point, and I really don't want to hang too much on the example if someone really doesn't like it (so long as they concede the point about slavery). But at this early stage in this proposal's life, it's surely fair game to ask these representatives: what are you really afraid of here? As King said, when someone cries out, "Injustice," the first step is to see if there's any substance to the cry.

    The fact that groups like PETA absolutely oppose hunting and have a strong presence isn't, to my mind, enough to ground the cry that this legal right is needed, because there are groups on the other side with equally strong presences (and wallets) like the NRA, etc. And it's not like voting such a right into the books would make groups like PETA go away.

    I guess what I should say is something to the effect that simply manufacturing a right isn't a helpful way to protect the tradition unless there's also a good story--and not just a few generic phrases--about why the tradition is worth protecting.