English: A white-tailed deer

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I return to visit my home town in Maine, I run my favorite route. This year was no exception and the early morning found me running through the forests and fields of the University of Maine. Emerging from a section of the cool and shaded pine forest, I spotted a large buck standing, with a clear sense of the aesthetic, in an open area. He saw me almost immediately and our eyes met across the distance.

The deer and I are both the product of untold generations of natural selection (or, perhaps, the result of design) and we are both well equipped to do what it is that we do. Or, in more teleological terms, we possess attributes that enable us to fulfill our functions with a degree of excellence.

Both the deer and I are equipped with a decent array of senses, although the deer has something of an edge here. We are, interestingly enough, both well optimized for running. However, we are somewhat different sorts of runners. The deer is much faster than I, but I have an advantage in endurance. While I am not a tireless runner, I can (and have) run for hours. The deer can outrun me, but I can outlast the deer. So, a contest between us could come down to his speed against my endurance. I also have a special advantage—my species excels at handling heat. On this warm day, this gives me an edge over the deer.

While the deer is equipped with hooves and horns for offense, I would seem to be poorly equipped. As a human, I lack a proper set of killing teeth and my nails are stubs—shameful nubs when compared to the magnificent claws of a proper mammalian predator like a lion or beer.

However, I have hands and a pretty good brain. As such, I can make and use weapons. For example, the tree limbs I ran past could be easily converted into a club. I also have the ability to throw quite well, thanks to my eyes and arms—unlike any other animal I can hurl an object with force and accuracy over a fairly long distance. Even without weapons, my training allows me to use my hands, feet and grip lethally. In this regard, I am more than a match for the deer in unarmed combat. However, the deer is not helpless. Far from it—nature has blessed him with the tools he needs to survive against hunters like me and my four-legged brethren.

As I look at the deer, the remembered flavor of venison fills my mouth. Venison is my second favorite meat. My favorite is veal, which I gave up almost thirty years ago thanks to Singer’s book Animal Liberation. I also feel the runner’s desire to see if I can outrun someone else. I also have the mental traits that make me a suitable hunter: the aggression, courage and toughness needed to engage another living creature and inflict (and sustain) the damage needed to secure a meal. The deer also has his traits: caution, cunning and courage—I know that while he would endeavor to run, he would also fight for his survival.

The deer shifts slightly and seems to gaze more intently at me—as if he somehow knows that I am hearing the ancient call of the hunter. I can certainly feel the desire to pursue the deer, to face the challenge of the chase. I can see that the deer is getting ready to run. As I have been shaped by my hunter ancestors, he has been shaped by his ancestors—the hunted. We are, as I have said, both very good at what it is we do. We are, after all, what we are.

While I am well equipped for the hunt, I am also endowed with something else—the ability to engage in moral reasoning. While I am hungry (I am seven miles into a 14 mile run), I know that I have breakfast waiting for me. I have no need to kill the deer for food. I will not waste a life simply to gain a trophy, so I would certainly not rob the deer of his life merely in order to rob him of his antlers. While I would love to chase him for sport, I am sure he would not enjoy the game—he would not know it was a game and it would terrify him and waste his energy. As Kant said, cruelty for the sake of mere sport is not something that I, as a rational being, should be involved with. I will not play a game unless everyone involved knows it is just a game. At least, when I am at my moral best, that is what I will do—I do admit to the desire to yield to the call of the chase.

I turn away from the deer, running through the tall grass. The deer turns away as well, heading back into the woods. It is a beautiful day and we both have many miles to run.

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  1. Nice essay! I also gave up veal 30 years ago (but based on a PETA leaflet), and also fondly remember the taste of venison (I had it for the last time about 25 years ago–truly delicious!). There’s also this to say about humans vs. genuine deer predators: the genuine predator needs to hunt deer for nutrition, but also because the activity of hunting is one of his few ways of filling his time meaningfully. We can forgo hunting and go running instead (or philosophizing, or a zillion other things), but a wolf who doesn’t hunt is pretty much a bored, idling wolf. In a zoo, where the animals get their rations, the animals do nothing all day. So predation is necessary for predators on many levels, and similarly unnecessary for us on many levels.

  2. Jean,

    Veal was surprisingly easy to give up: the nature of the cruelty used to create veal gave a moral boost to my will power. Roughly put, veal is so obviously wrong that I found it easy to resist temptation. I can still remember the taste and hope that scientists will develop vat veal someday. 🙂

    I have not been able to give up venison, though. I am reasonably sure this is because the deer is (usually) killed quickly in the wild by the process of hunting (as opposed to enduring ongoing abuse). Psychologically, this makes a difference to me because the deer has a chance and the hunter-hunted relationship seems to be meaningfully different than the relationship between those creating veal and the veal calf. So, I do not feel that bad about venison. I do, however, feel a bit bad-as you said, I don’t actually need to hunt for food or for activity: I can go to the market and then play a video game.

    But, I do wonder a bit if we do still have some psychological need to hunt and what, if any, impact this might have on the ethics of hunting.

  3. Great post.
    A good reminder of our natural roots. So easy to forget these traits we have when we are bombarded by so much technology and other distractions.

    Seven out of fourteen mile run…wow! You have more energy than I.

  4. Mike LaBossiere,

    “When I return to visit my home town in Maine, I run my favorite route. This year was no exception…..”

    Sounds like the beginning of a Stephen King novel, written in the first person. You weren’t overcome by some forest spirit forcing you to chase the animal down, ripping out its’ jugular with your bare teeth, or bear teeth.

    “I can still remember the taste and hope that scientists will develop vat veal someday”

    It’s coming sooner than you think. Dr Mark Post, the archetypal mad scientist defying God to create new life in his Dutch lab, has had his first, proof of concept, burger tasted in London the other day.

    It’s far more than about growing synthy veal in vats. Post has far greater ambitions. The project is to develop technology that not only can reproduce meat, but can produce any organic tissue, animal or human (if you need a new, liver, heart or lung, the process will provide).

    And since he will be working on something, that is a far as we can say, neither alive nor dead. Post can experiment to his heart’s content with his strange new materials, without fear of interruption by those concerned with the ethical treatment of animals or humans.

    I think it is inevitable (as it is in all the books and films) that he will create a beast, that will escape from its’ confinement in secret lab within the University of Maine, into the forest, where it will live on wild deer, and any runners it can catch. (I had to move Post’s lab from Holland to Maine, because Holland lacks the trees – and a Dutch beast would probably be too liberal and relaxed, smoking marijuana and drinking coffee..reading, making vegetarian lasagna)

    It’s immoral to cruelly kill an animal or human….but what of Frankensteins …..What about Dr. Post’s Sorgenkinder?

  5. Dear Sir
    What do you mean by
    “or, perhaps, the result of design”

  6. Dudley M Jones,

    “Dear Sir
    What do you mean by
    “or, perhaps, the result of design”

    He’s trying to bait the Evangelical Atheists.

  7. In the above post, is not the question that needs to be squeezed out this: What is it about nature that makes man a rational and moral animal, as opposed to other animals whose natural impulses are individual and species survival?

    Please no Kant or other pious descriptions. Cats are naturally cruel. Indeed, they enjoy playing with their kill. So also some cops enjoy inflicting pain on those they arrest. Well… what’s wrong with that? Cats serve nature, and cops make for a better, more lawful society.

  8. Whether cops in general make for a better, more lawful society has nothing to do with whether cops who enjoy inflicting pain on those they arrest and do inflict pain on those they arrest make for a better, more lawful society.

    I’d say that the latter group of cops do not make for a better, more lawful society.

  9. CalledToQuestion,

    I used to do 16 miles…time is mean. 🙂

  10. JMRC,

    Maine is just like the novels. That is why so many good runners come from Maine: we are faster than the evil clown-things.

    As my CoC players will attest, most monsters do end up in Maine. It is kind of our thing. Hence all the hunting.

    It is morally commendable to whack evil monsters. Misunderstood beings…well, that would be tragedy.

  11. Dudley M Jones,

    I consider a teleological reality to be a possibility. That is, we are what we are due to purpose and not just chance.

  12. JMRC,

    I love baiting atheists almost as much as I love veal. Fortunately, baiting does not cause me any moral problems.

  13. Boreas,

    Like Hume, I do think that other animals share moral traits with us. Dogs are the obvious example-they get the notions of fairness and loyalty.

    I would, to continue to steal from Hume, say that we differ mainly in degree due to our (generally) superior mental capabilities. Also, we have language: so we talk a lot rather than just doing.

  14. You may know of paul Barnett - pingback on August 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm

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