The need for an ethical code of conduct for hunters is rooted in the historical redefinition of hunting from a common source of food to a form of recreation. As hunting became less universal and people became detached from the process of obtaining meat, the necessity of hunting to survive was less clear and objections to hunting appeared, at first couched in the familiar criticisms of the Protestant work ethic, i.e. hunting was a waste of time.
Environmental psychologist James A. Swan has written compellingly about the "good old days" of hunting and how modern practices reflect the lore and woodcraft of countless earlier hunters. He speaks well of the tradition of passing down stories and skills from one generation to the next, but his most interesting statements come from his perspective as a psychologist. Swan writes that hunting can be a spiritual activity, transcending the normal through "peak experiences" characterized by "intense emotional excitement [and] encounters with the deepest issues of life and death." He feels it is important for humans to recognize their role as natural predators (and prey) and that to avoid this truth is harmful.
Whenever we deny our instincts, we create problems for ourselves, those around us, and the world. In our inner nature we are all animals... As long as our psyches do not change, we will never be able to give up our hunting heritage. The hunting instinct is bred into the bone and blood of at least most of us and is one of the fundamental elements of human nature. Our challenge as humans is to find the best ways to express our instinctual nature. Hunting, an instinctual activity governed now by science, technology, and the constraints of modernity, offers one way to express this element of human nature and to experience first hand the role of predator in the food chain. To Swan and others this is as necessary a part of being human as sleep or sex, although convincing opponents of that may require more research.
Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset believed that ethics were the dividing line between hunting and killing. He wrote that he exemplary moral spirit of the sporting hunter, that manner of feeling, of taking up and practicing hunting, is a very precise line, below which fall innumerable forms of hunting that are deficient modes of this occupation. Hunting, like every human activity, has an ethic which distinguishes virtues from vices.
There is no central source of hunting ethics, however, and standards vary considerably from place to place and between individual hunters. Consequently, what one hunter may feel is a legitimate (or even the only) way to hunt a particular species may violate another's basic ethical precepts. The contemporary debate over the future of hunting has created an ideal atmosphere for hunters to come together and collectively formulate an ethical code that will apply to all conditions, species, regions, and practices, while seeking to address the issues that give rise to conflict with non-hunters.
Hunting ethics have historically been learned by young hunters from older hunters, usually transferring from father to son in our male-dominated hunting society. The Izaak Walton League's "Hunter's Pledge" was created with both ethics and public relations in mind by a coalition of major national hunting and conservation organizations. The league's Executive Director expressed the organization's concern for the future of hunting at the unveiling of the pledge, noting that the effort "shows that hunting and conservation groups are united in their efforts to change hunter behavior. In a crowded society, hunting must be ethical and responsible- or it will not be tolerated." Similar thoughts were voiced by a representative of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "With the public's continuing interest in the environment and wildlife, we must be sure hunters are good environmental stewards whose images are not tarnished by unethical behavior." The Hunter's Pledge speaks directly to a variety of issues not addressed by the fair chase standard or hunting regulations, and includes specific provisions related to the most common criticisms voiced by non-hunters. It asks that hunters:
Respect the environment and wildlife
Respect property and landowners
Show consideration for non-hunters
Know and obey the law
Support wildlife and habitat conservation
Pass on an ethical hunting tradition
Strive to improve their outdoor skills and understanding of nature Hunt only with other ethical hunters (38)
Each of these points are defined in more detail in the pledge, presenting a standard of ethical conduct that is built upon respect for wildlife and other humans, and a concern for the public image of hunters.
1) To foster positive relations between hunters and landowners.
2) To increase access to private lands by giving landowners a way to identify Master Hunters.
3) To improve the hunting experience and the public image of hunters.
4) To develop a pool of ethical and knowledgeable hunters.
To encourage hunters to participate in the program Master Hunters are allowed to hunt on special parcels of private land, in areas closed to other hunters, and in state-sponsored wildlife management hunts used to solve specific animal population or depredation problems. To become a Master Hunter in Oregon hunters must satisfactorily complete a home study course on ethics, a classroom session with a hunter education instructor, a firearm proficiency test, and at least twenty hours of volunteer service to benefit wildlife.(41) While it is unlikely that a large percentage of hunters will have the time and inclination to pursue this certification, the presence of even a few Master Hunters in the field and the associated media coverage of the program can only improve the public image of hunters.
Whatever method may be used to propagate it, establishing a comprehensive ethical code for hunters will yield immense benefits. First and foremost, it will address many of the concerns of non-hunters and improve the public image of hunting. While a media campaign aimed at alleviating popular misconceptions of hunting would help counter the prevalence of negative stereotypes in the media and popular culture, public contact with ethical hunters would likely stir more minds in support of hunting. Eliminating, or at least dramatically reducing, the problems of poachers and "slob hunters" would further reduce the negative attention hunters currently attract. Anti-hunting groups would have to rely specifically on animal-rights language in opposing hunting, a position that has proven attractive only to a small number of people and would likely fail to motivate enough voters to further restrict hunting. Similarly, concerns over safety, property, and competition for resources could be reduced by a new strain of ethical hunters who are more concerned about their impacts on other people and animals than current hunters may be.