Is skilled hunting unethical?

by elephantiskon11 min read17th Feb 201818 comments


Ethics & MoralitySufferingAnimal Welfare
Personal Blog

[Note (6/30/19): I think I made interesting and valid points with this piece, but my framing was terrible. I should have clarified who are the people for whom I think these arguments should be persuasive, had a longer introductory section talking about why skilled hunting is much less problematic than slaughter and consumption of farmed animals, spun the fifth argument off into its own post, and maybe left off an epistemic status. I'd like to revise this at some point, but not sure when I'll get around to it.]

Content Warning

Explicit descriptions of wild animal suffering and serious discussion of killing and consuming animals as a potentially net-positive intervention.


Two months ago, I believed that skillful hunting was ethical because it prevented animals from suffering painful natural deaths in the wild. However, this was a privately-held belief, and after discussing it in person for the first time, I began to have second thoughts. Now, most hunting isn’t skilled enough to prevent animals from suffering non-fatal injuries or prolonged deaths, and I doubt the lives of most LessWrong readers are impacted by their beliefs on the ethics of skilled hunting. But even if most readers are not passionate hunters or consumers of hunted meat, I expect that they will nonetheless find the issues discussed in this article—wild animal welfare, movement-building, habit formation, moral uncertainty, how to set epistemic priors— both interesting and relevant to their day-to-day-lives. I also hope this article provides a useful example of how to examine an object-level belief and actually change your mind.


Epistemic status: ~90% confident in conclusion conditioned on moral patienthood of hunted animals.

Epistemic effort: 14 hours of writing and new research. Preceded by substantial background research into wild-animal suffering, two ~15 minute conversations with other rationalists, and ~15 minutes focused preliminary thinking about the issue.

Motivation for writing: Inspired by a conversation that I had at the NYC Solstice this year. Hoping to gain experience with less academic writing, and explore whether or not I’m personally comfortable with some wild-fish consumption.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ikaxas for feedback and edits.

Background Assumptions

I will be taking it for granted in this piece that all targets of hunting have enough sentience that we should worry about them being moral patients, and so we should care about their suffering. If you are confident that animals are not sentient, think of this article as an exercise in stepping out of your epistemic comfort zone—also, write up your reasoning! If we live in a world that is not quite that dark, I’d like to know so! (But I doubt we do.)


According to Persis Eksander, who researched methods of lethal population control for elephants, kangaroos, wild hogs, and deer as part of the Wild-Animal Suffering Research project, common hunting practices do not lessen the suffering associated with an animal’s death—on the contrary, they may result in even more suffering than the animal would experience in the wild. In particular: it usually takes several shots to give an elephant a painful and prolonged death, hunted kangaroos are often grievously injured without being killed, and kangaroo joeys whose mothers are killed either starve to death or are inhumanely killed in accordance with Australian law. Hunted wild hogs sometimes have particularly grizzly deaths involving attacks by hunting dogs. Population-control programs which proceed by these specific methods of hunting do appear grossly unethical.

‘Wild hog’ is a useful term as it can be ambiguous between wild boars and feral pigs.

But let us consider the least convenient possible hunter. Suppose you are skilled enough at riflery that you can consistently kill wild land animals in a manner that involves less suffering than a natural death in the wild. Further suppose that you have not developed a meat aversion, and would get some positive utility from eating hunted meat and from engaging in the activity of hunting. Is this something you should do? My plan for answering this question is to outline different reasons why skilled hunting could remain an unethical action, and then conclude by reviewing the plausibility of these arguments and addressing possible objections.

Arguments against skilled hunting

1. The animal could have a happy life

If the remaining duration of a wild animal’s life has substantially positive net utility, then killing the animal is immoral. An exchange between Michael Plant and Brian Tomasik is partly concerned with the balance of pain and pleasure in the life of a relatively long-lived animal, such as a zebra. Tomasik concedes to Plant that “many (maybe a majority of) people would, even after learning more, decide that a typical zebra who lives a full 25 years has a net positive life”.

(Tomasik actually thinks that even a large quantity of pleasure experienced throughout an animal’s life would probably not justify the short-lived but very intense pain of a natural death. Also, a typical zebra doesn’t live that long.)

Consider a hypothetical adult zebra who has an expected lifespan of 18 years or so, over which time it experiences a small amount of pleasure roughly evenly distributed over its pre-death lifespan. If the suffering associated with the zebra’s death outweighs the pleasure obtained during x years of its lifespan, then once the zebra is 18−x years old a painless death would have positive expected utility.

(The death of a skillfully hunted animal is not actually painless, but I expect that it is sufficiently less painful that the difference in suffering between a skillfully inflicted death and a natural death could still be the equivalent of a few years of pleasant lifespan.)

So whether or not hunting zebra is justified therefore depends on the distribution and quantity of pleasant experiences throughout a zebra’s life, the difference in the magnitude of suffering associated with a zebra’s natural and hunted deaths, and the age distribution of zebra in the population being hunted. A field of welfare biology research would make these variables a little clearer, although I expect firm answers will be difficult to obtain.

A counterintuitive result of this model is that hunting very young animals could be more ethical than hunting adult animals, because high child mortality rates among wild animals suggest that young animals would be less likely to have enough pleasant experiences to outweigh the suffering associated with a natural death.

A concrete example: according to the National Zoo, 80% of wild lions die before reaching adulthood at 3 years old, but should they survive that long they can be expected to live another 11 years. Assuming roughly even age distribution among adult lions as well as among lion cubs, killing a lion cub will rob it of about 3 years of additional life in expectation, while killing an adult lion will rob it of 5.5 years of additional life in expectation. If the suffering associated with a natural death outweighs the pleasure experienced by a wild lion in a 3 year duration but not that experienced in a 5 year duration, then we find it is ethical to give a painless death to the lion cub but not to the adult lion.

(However, I suspect that stimuli are more vividly experienced by young animals than by older animals, which would complicate this line of reasoning.)

Essentially, the greater the extent to which you think suffering dominates pleasure among wild animals targeted by hunters, the more you should be willing to entertain the possibility of skilled hunting as a potentially net-positive intervention from a utilitarian standpoint.

2. Eating hunted meat makes it harder for you to not eat farmed meat

I think some meat might be mildly addictive, possibly owing to the central nervous stimulant hypoxanthine. Regardless, it shouldn’t be controversial that food consumption can be somewhat habit-forming, and meat in particular is a food people report craving. Google Trends suggests that people might have cravings for meat more often than for fruit or vegetables, but less often than for coffee or cheese.

(Preliminary searching did not turn up any academic research on addictive qualities of meat; this provides some evidence that meat is not addictive to any significant extent, with the caveat that the animal agriculture industry does retain substantial influence on nutritional research.)

If eating meat is in fact habit-forming, then making continued exceptions for hunted meat could make it more difficult for one to eventually quit farmed meat. Moreover, when adopting new habits, keeping things simple might help to conserve willpower. “Don’t eat any dead animals” seems like an easier rule to install than “Don’t eat any dead animals, unless you have a high degree of confidence that they were wild animals who were killed skillfully at a point in their lives such that them continuing to live until their natural death would cause more suffering than the inflicted death, or unless they are bivalves.”

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"They’ve all the sentience of a brick!"
Adapted from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

In other words, if you construct a simple but strong Schelling fence for yourself, you won’t be as tempted to move it later on.

On the other hand, a gradual transition to a non-carnivorous diet might be easier than an abrupt one, and consuming skillfully hunted meat during the transitional period would be more ethical than eating factory-farmed meat. Also, eating only skillfully hunted meat is a variant of the meat-eating habit which involves more friction, so it might be more helpful in scaling up to a fully non-carnivorous diet than eating small amounts of farmed meat.

3. Hunting normalizes animal slaughter and consumption

Likewise, building a social movement around ending cruelty towards animals becomes a much easier task if you keep things simple and don’t complicate matters by endorsing slaughtering animals for human consumption or enjoyment, even if only in limited circumstances.

Actually, I think the term Schelling flag might be a useful piece of new jargon: the ideology may not be the movement, but many movements have particular behaviors they expect of their members. I would expect less associated status-jockeying and more ready adherence of potential members to the behavior if it exhibits characteristics of a Schelling point (i.e. members could have converged upon it in absence of coordination).

A concrete example: effective altruists who take the Giving What We Can Pledge promise to donate 10% of their income, with a few situational exceptions. The 10% figure is mostly arbitrary, although religious precedents and it being a nice round number made it a good potential Schelling point. Some effective altruists regularly donate more than 10% of their income, and not all effective altruists take the pledge. Nonetheless, I suspect that keeping a 10% pledge as a key component of the movement helps sell effective altruism to the public and results in more charitable contributions being made than would be otherwise.

The animal advocacy movement is no stranger to purity contests and a holier-than-thou public image. Meatless Monday and Vegan-Before-6 counter this tendency by creating more lenient Schelling flags for people to rally behind which are a little easier to adopt and could later be scaled up into stricter lifestyle habits. But I think the stricter rule of “Don’t eat dead animals” might be an especially compelling flag, and we should be wary of abandoning it.

In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if more absolutist campaigns like the Liberation Pledge, which requires that pledge-takers not sit where animals are being eaten, were crucial to achieving long-term reductions in animal suffering. Zack Groff characterizes the primary medium-term aim of the animal advocacy movement as being the achievement of a stigmatization of meat similar to the stigmatization of cigarettes: this seems to me to be a very good strategy for expanding humanity’s moral circle. Of course, Meatless Monday and welfarist campaigns might be necessary to achieve the conditions in which such a stigmatization is possible, and moreover it could still be helpful for the animal advocacy movement to retain “Don’t eat dead animals” and “Don’t kill animals” as Schelling flags under some circumstances in which absolutist advocacy is less generally effective.

For example, “Don’t eat dead animals” might help result in a more positive public image owing to the simplicity of the demand and its lessened susceptibility to hypocrisy accusations; it might result in a better conversion rate of high-commitment members; more suffering might be prevented than would be if weaker flags were more prominent.

So while more strategy research is crucial to predicting with higher confidence what messaging the animal advocacy movement should adopt, you should nonetheless highly value your ability to signal support for a particularly easy-to-communicate position like “No killing, no eating”, especially if you think stigmatization of meat consumption might be important to reduce animal suffering.

4. Killing animals could be inherently immoral

Just as our factual beliefs carry uncertainties, so do our (meta-)ethical beliefs.

One way to treat moral uncertainty is to take into account weighted predictions of moral theories we have low confidence in when making decisions. For example, a surgeon who declines to kill a healthy patient for their organs in order to save many others via organ transplants might say in their defense, “Well, according to my favorite moral theory I should really just shut up and multiply, but I actually ascribe some non-negligible probability that I’m mistaken about morality in such a way that murder is inherently wrong.” Even if the surgeon puts high confidence in consequentialism, a low confidence in deontology might be still impact your ethical decision-making.

Other than the level of guilt experienced by the perpetrator and potentially the degree of sentience of the victim, there is no morally-relevant distinction between killing an animal and killing a person [edit: except other instrumental concerns]. So if you would balk at killing a person against their will even when confident it would result in a net reduction of suffering, you should be concerned about killing an animal against its will even when confident it would result in a net reduction of suffering.

5. You should have a high prior that hunting is unethical

Disney movies like Bambi and Fox and the Hound contain strong anti-hunting messages, with the former inspiring Paul McCartney to be an animal advocate. Indeed, it is much more difficult for me to conceive of hunting being an ethical activity after watching this scene from Bambi (the emotional impact is lessened if you haven’t seen the movie from the start).

Brienne Yudkowsky has advocated that one should not take the effectiveness of emotional appeals like this as evidence, because the ability to craft an effective emotional appeal is not reliant on the truth of the position being advanced. I think Brienne is right that at least within social circles which highly value truth-seeking, trying to advance a position by emotional manipulation is not a good idea.

But although emotional appeals can be effective without being aligned to the truth, an emotional appeal for a true position will be easier to create than an emotional appeal than a false appeal. Imagine a children’s film whose plot still revolves around deer hunting, but which portrays hunting in a positive light. I would predict that one could make such a film, but that even with sky-high production values it would probably be substantially less compelling than Bambi.

Switching gears slightly, we know that it is not difficult to bias ourselves away from uncomfortable conclusions: if you take our moral intuitions to represent some real truth, either about the world or about our own fundamental values, then this truth becomes obscured when it conflicts with our own non-moral preferences or our socialization. The question I wish I could pose to you at this point is: if it looks like it's evil and it sounds like it's evil, then maybe it's evil?

But whatever evidential weight your "true" moral intuitions carry as to whether or not something looks evil could be easily overshadowed by the weight imposed by our own biases and preferences, and by framing effects. (Morality might just consist of biases all the way down, but if that’s the case some biases are more important to us than others.) So I want to propose a method by which we can more robustly intuit how evil something would appear to us at first glance if our biases were weaker.

Importantly, in The Sword of Good and elsewhere, Eliezer points out that sometimes villains look like heroes, and vice-versa. But usually (not always), the people wearing black robes and waving around red lightsabers really are the bad guys! It's just that we sometimes decide that red lightsabers must not be that bad after all, especially when we're the ones holding them.

“I’m really just misunderstood.”

My hope is that by applying strong framing effects to each of two positions and seeing which one required stronger framing to be plausible, we can get closer to whatever a true moral intuition might be regarding how evil something looks.

So I seriously think the following questions actually a provide a decent heuristic for setting priors:

  • How easy is it to conceive of a compelling children’s movie whose central conceit assumes that X is morally wrong?
  • How easy is it to conceive of a compelling children’s movie whose central conceit assumes that X is morally right?

If it is twice as easy to conceive of the X-is-wrong movie, then adopt a prior closer to 2:1 odds that X is wrong, and update that on whatever additional evidence you have accumulated.

The hope is that thinking in terms of what would be compelling to a child reduces biases imposed by your need to justify behavior and by elements of your socialization that a child would not have encountered, and in most cases that simplicity of creating an emotional appeal tracks truthfulness reasonably well.

The history of children’s cinema shows that when applied to hunting, our heuristic points strongly towards hunting being evil. I don’t think evidence in favor of hunting being ethical would be strong enough to outweigh a decently strong prior that hunting is unethical in most circumstances, so insofar as you think this line of reasoning produces priors about moral judgements which are more accurate than those accumulated through standard life experiences, you should believe that hunting is probably unethical.


I think that at least one of the above reasons is likely to be valid, which would imply that it is unethical to hunt animals even in a highly skilled manner. In particular, I think that spreading the compassion-for-animals-is-important signal which is sent by living a non-carnivorous lifestyle is really important to prevent massive amounts of suffering in the present and in the future, so the argument I find most persuasive is that hunting or eating hunted meat seems to severely reduce the quality of this signal (#3). I am more uncertain about the other arguments, although I think that each has enough possibility of being true that taken together they provide reasonably strong support for hunting being unethical.

But what about moral offsets? The underlying ethical assumptions behind moral offsets seem reasonable to me, but I think movement-building signaling effects are actually one of the biggest benefits of adopting a plant-based diet, so an accurate offset cost might be higher than expected.

In theory, an act of hunting with severe negative consequences to the animal could still be be justified so long as you experience a sufficient amount of pleasure from hunting or from eating hunted meat. This is not a concern if you have a suffering-focused ethics or otherwise believe that your interest in hunting or eating hunted meat is not comparable with an animal’s interest in avoiding pain. But realistically, even if you’re a bit of a utility monster, you’re not that strong a utility monster.

Ozy writes:

“…most people– even most animal-rights advocates– agree that humans matter more than pigs: if you have a choice of giving a delicious meal to a pig or a delicious meal to a human, you should probably not give it to the pig.
(This, of course, does not justify torturing a pig to feed a delicious meal to a human.)”

Even if you think life just wouldn’t be worth living without bacon, you might turn out to be wrong about that. The pleasure associated with eating different foods and participating in different hobbies seems fairly malleable to me in most people, on the basis of anecdotal evidence and on analogy with other preferences which are consistently reported to be less mutable than they actually are. Unfortunately, preliminary searching did not turn up anything reliable specifically on the malleability of food preferences in healthy adults.

Moreover, meat-substitutes are advanced enough that your current food preferences might remain largely satisfiable by a non-carnivorous diet. If you believe that eating hunted or farmed meat is unethical in a vacuum but that realistically you couldn’t handle a more plant-based diet, repeat the Litany of Tarski to yourself a few times (“If it is possible for me to not eat meat, then I want to believe it is possible for me to not eat meat. If it is not possible for me to not eat meat…”), and check if your beliefs are paying their rent. You might find that switching your eating habits is not quite as hard as you thought.

Don’t update whatever beliefs you’ve developed about the morality of hunting wild animals on this super-adorable picture of a baby deer, unless you also look up cute pictures of deer hunters and don’t find anything equally compelling, adjusting for any confounds that seem obvious. Just sit back and enjoy the cuteness.

[Edit: Originally posted to frontpage, now moved to personal blog.]