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Pheasant Shooting: Bad for Pheasants, Worse for Humans?

At the beginning of this month, the pheasant shooting season began. Pheasant shooting is little discussed – it’s usually seen just as a harmless country pass time. However, it’s far from clear that it really is as unobjectionable as this neglect implies.

A typical shoot includes gunpersons who do the shooting, and also ‘beaters’. The latter go ahead, beating the undergrowth to get the pheasants to fly so that they can be shot in flight. The beaters are sometimes those too young to wield guns. Dogs are sent to retrieve the birds which have been shot down, and bring them to the hunters. Birds which are injured but not dead are killed swiftly to end their suffering. In order that the pheasant population is kept high enough for the shooting, pheasants are bred in readiness for the season.

Pheasant shooting has received some criticism, both in particular instances and as a general practice. What are these criticisms, and are they justified? One problem brought up is the fact that the lead shot used is toxic, and therefore that shot which misses its mark can poison other animals. For that reason, lead shot is banned in British wetlands. This problem can be overcome, however, by using steel shot rather than lead. Another reason for objections to the practice of pheasant shooting is that the practice of breeding the pheasants is cruel, because initially they are kept in cramped conditions. That certainly seems to show that the practice causes some harm. However, we allow farming to continue despite causing some harm to animals. Pheasants are usually allowed to roam freely in the forest for the largest part of their life, so in fact they seem to be treated better than many farmed animals. Therefore, if our current farming practices are allowable, we would need some other reason for thinking pheasant shooting wasn’t.

Another objection made to pheasant shooting is that people don’t eat the pheasants they shoot. If factory farming animals is justified by the fact that we eat the animals, then perhaps shooting pheasants is justifiable only when the pheasants are eaten. But what is it about eating animals that justifies harmful farming? If we needed the nutritional value provided by meat, our justification might be something akin to self-defence. That is manifestly not the case – those who shoot pheasants, like those in the developed world who buy meat from the supermarket, could get all the calories and vitamins they needed from other sources if they chose to. In developed countries, we eat meat primarily for pleasure. Therefore, if our practice of farming animals to eat is justified, it must be justified by the pleasure people get from eating meat. It seems reasonable to suppose that people who go shooting enjoy doing so, and that that pleasure is comparable to the pleasure of eating a piece of meat. Does that mean that the practice of shooting pheasants is no worse than that of eating meat?

There is an important dimension to shooting pheasants which is has not been discussed yet – the intention to kill. For many deontologists the difference between foreseeing and intending harm is very important, which might be a reason for them seeing a moral difference between eating meat and shooting. When you come to buy and eat a piece of meat, the animal is already dead – eating it won’t cause any additional harm. Of course, it is foreseeable that your buying a piece of meat, whether at the supermarket or at a restaurant, will increase demand for meat, and therefore cause other animals to be harmed. But that is not your intention – the intention is just to eat this piece of meat. On the other hand, in the case of pheasant shooting, the very aim is to kill the pheasant. Therefore, this seems to be a case of intending, not just foreseeing harm.

The foregoing might seem to show that only those who care about the intentions behind actions (as well as the consequences
of the actions) should believe that pheasant shooting is worse than eating meat. However, how people act depends on their intentions – even if different intentions motivate the same action in the present, they will likely lead to different actions in the future. We might think that a person who eats meat has certain dispositions which make them less likely to prevent suffering than they should be, but there is no indication they have dispositions to go out of their way to cause suffering. Whereas it might be that enjoying shooting animals indicates a disposition towards violence and deliberately causing suffering. Moreover, people’s dispositions are likely to change depending on how they act – those which are acted on are likely to become entrenched, and ones which are discouraged may gradually decline. Even more important is developing the right dispositions in children, who are still very impressionable. Children who are taken on shoots to act as beaters and to help collect and kill the birds seem likely to pick up the idea that hurting and killing sentient creatures is a fun day out, rather than an evil which is sometimes necessary but always regrettable.

The most obviously harmful aspects of pheasant shooting – intensive farming and the pain of being shot – seem to be no less justifiable than some of our current farming practices. However, the dispositions shooting encourages in people seem likely to make people cause more harm in the world than they otherwise would, which seems to be a good reason for preventing people from doing it.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Most activities, hobbies, sports, etc. can have an adverse effect on some people but we do not and should ban them. I have not observed that all people who shoot pheasants do more harm than those that do not. Indeed, those that are doing more harming do not appear, as far as I can, to be doing so because they shoot pheasants.

    It is fortunate that in most cases we do not prevent people from doing things on the grounds of 'good reason' as laid out by you. In too many cases we do because people think something meanful has been said because it enforces their prejudices. It's not 'good reason' but it makes them feel good.

    1. "I have not observed that all people who shoot pheasants do more harm than those that do not"

      Well, they do more harm to pheasants than those that do not, and it certainly seems likely that it encourages the belief that harming (non-human) animals for pleasure is acceptable. Obviously it's a bit of a leap from there to the claim that it encourages dispositions towards harming people, and no evidence has been provided to support that.

  2. Pheasant shooting, as it appears, is a symptom of something. What is that something? In the Socratic sense, it points to the 'untrained soul' that seeks pleasure in unnecessary destruction: this goes for almost anything. Even if laws are passed banning such 'activities,' the 'soul' will remain agitated. It may perhaps find some other avenue to satisfy its inner turmoil. The best course of action, therefore, would be the Socratic balm, that is, to remove the 'ignorance' of those who take part in such activities. Else, we will continue to look for 'symptomatic ethic' that will occupy us in endless debates without any rational perception of the issue on hand.

  3. "Pheasants are usually allowed to roam freely in the forest for the largest part of their life, so in fact they seem to be treated better than many farmed animals. "

    In the US it is sometimes even worse that this, especially in areas where there are very few wild pheasants. It is not uncommon for farm raised birds to be hunted on game farms where you literally purchase the number of birds you want and the farm workers will deposit them in a field that is assigned to you. So you know that there are birds in that specific field and you use your dogs to go hunt them. It's pretty pathetic. I admit to having been on one or two of these "hunts" as a younger man. It didn't seem very sporting to me, but at least we did eat the pheasants.

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