07 February 2023

On Hunting and the Moral Law

Dr Morello uses 'hunting ' in the British sense of riding to hounds, but, mutatis mutandis, much of what he says applies to shooting as well.

From The European Conservative

By Sebastian Morello, PhD

The hunt is almost the perfect antithesis of the ‘online community.’ In the hunting community, we know little of each other’s opinions. Our bond is not established by views or factions, but by our experience of belonging.

On the first page of Roger Scruton’s On Hunting—his homage to foxhunting—there is a sentence which leaps out from the page like a 17 hands Irish Hunter risking an untrimmed blackthorn hedgerow: “Most of those who hunt are ordinary decent people who stand, in my experience, noticeably above the moral norm.” This does not, of course, correspond well with the popular image of people who hunt: arrogant toffs anxious to satiate a vulpicidal bloodlust. Those who actually go hunting, however, have yet to encounter such persons. Scruton’s sentence comprises a provocative proposition—derived from a biased observation—but it also coheres entirely with my own experience. On the hunting field, one routinely encounters humility, courtesy, hospitality, and genuine inclusivity that is reminiscent of the settled ways of an England that one discovers in old novels, but which has since been quashed by decades of social disruption and soft Marxism.

Perhaps it’s obvious why hunting people seem “noticeably above the moral norm.” After all, their conduct largely determines whether they will continue to be accommodated by farmers and landowners on whose lands they hunt. They are also keen to keep their field sport going; hence they must balance the sufficient exclusivity to inspire interest with the necessary inclusivity to keep membership up, and given that members meet each other often throughout the Season, the rituals of communal renewal are essential to maintaining the bond—like the hunt lunches and puppy shows. Were sensitivity towards others and the habits of hospitality to wane, the hunt would dwindle.

These explanations I offer for the moral rectitude that Scruton observed in the hunting community are not, however, of adequate depth to account for it. I’ve been hunting with hounds since I was a schoolboy and yet I feel—and probably shall always feel—like an outsider, accepted by the hunting community as a guest who can never wholly belong to it. The hunt’s most revered members appear as objects of the landscape itself, whose lives and livelihood are so entangled with the cycles of the countryside that were the hunt—even in its present, impoverished form—to be legislated out of existence, so too would the very existence of these elders be snuffed out. They inhabit a world from which modernity has unhappily removed me, which I may only visit in fleeting episodes when I suspend my work as a writer to renew my covenant with the land on which we all ultimately depend. Thus, I enjoy the benefit of studying this community from its peripheries, and the findings of my anthropological examinations are that, when it comes to the admirable moral intuitions of hunting folk, there is something much deeper going on.

Acknowledgement of the high moral quality of people who hunt with hounds was perhaps first conveyed by William Cobbett in his Rural Rides. Cobbett was a keen field-sportsman. He loved to shoot gamebirds, and, whilst undertaking his journalistic investigations into the conditions of rustic England’s working poor, he also restored himself by taking his pony to as many foxhunts as possible. Such commitment to shooting and hunting, however, permitted him to see a moral difference between the two kinds of field-sportsman at play:

There is, however, an important distinction to be made between hunters (including coursers) and shooters. The latter are, as far as relates to their exploits, a disagreeable class, compared with the former; and the reason of this is, their doings are almost wholly their own; while, in the case of the others, the achievements are the property of the dogs.

Cobbett notes that people who shoot can attribute the day’s successes to themselves, and themselves alone. However, someone who hunts—for in England, hunting means (and always means) hunting with hounds—is not actually hunting at all. Rather, he is joining, perhaps witnessing, at best facilitating, hunting that is carried out not by himself but by hounds. Whatever the successes of the day, then, are to be attributed to the quality of the pack, and not to the members of the field or the hunt staff. This, Cobbett suggests, effects very different moral characters in the two kinds of field-sportsman. He continues:

Nobody likes to hear another talk much in praise of his own acts, unless those acts have a manifest tendency to produce some good to the hearer; and shooters do talk much of their own exploits, and those exploits rather tend to humiliate the hearer … whereas, hunters are mere followers of the dogs, as mere spectators; their praises, if any are called for, are bestowed on the greyhounds, the hounds, the fox, the hare, or the horses.

For Cobbett, one ought not to speak of oneself, unless it is thought that doing so will be of good not to oneself but to one’s converser. As a rule, for Cobbett, you should forget about yourself and focus on others. It is almost impossible, however, to discuss a day’s shooting without referring to one’s own successes, and this, for Cobbett, introduces to the sport a moral complication that does not exist for English hunters. As people boast of achievements in bagging braces, their fellow field-sportsmen are forced to compete in the boasting of the day, and so a culture of encouraging a moral defect is unavoidably established. Among those who hunt with hounds, praise is always reserved for the animals who pursue or are pursued, and thus an appreciation of a world beyond oneself is opened up, by which one can self-forget—which is, as it happens, the first stage of human perfection.

Personally, I think that Cobbett is awfully hard on people who shoot. Rough shooters in particular seem to enjoy an earthy amity, have a deep appreciation of the various fowl which they look forward to eating, and share a deep bond with the spaniels and retrievers that accompany them into the undergrowth. Furthermore, from my deerstalking experiences I can confirm that a very profound love and knowledge of the deer, a respect for the stalking seasons that optimise the health of the various species, and a disdain for any waste of good venison, is the absolute norm among stalkers. Self-congratulatory attitudes based on the number of ‘kills’ is something I simply haven’t encountered.

Nonetheless, the fact that Cobbett makes this observation is interesting. Indeed, the fact that there is ongoing commentary at all on the moral rectitude of people who hunt makes it worthy of some consideration, given the negative image of hunters that urban moderns both accept and perpetuate, all the while wanting to enjoy the gifts of the countryside whilst neglecting to learn anything about it.

My own view is that the relationship between hunting and highly developed moral instincts is a deep one. Traditionally-minded people have always intuited that a certain harmony, or connaturality, exists between the natural order and the moral law. If one does things that conflict with the moral law, one will likely become unwell. If one does things that undermine the natural order, one’s moral compass will corrupt. This belief in a harmony between the natural order and the moral law is one of the most elementary principles of any conservative worldview. Hunting with hounds, I submit, arose from a moral urge to rectify a rift that had occurred in the natural order.

As the predators with which we competed for supremacy over the land declined in numbers due to our conversion of the wilderness into a reliable source of food and clothing through the art of farming, we discerned that a disorder had entered the natural order. Whilst we needed to farm and work the land for the sake of civilisation-building, so too species that had once been hunted by wolves and big cats, had no such predators anymore. This, of course, not only caused problematic population growth (which always causes the species in question to outbreed their source of sustenance and then starve), but it also meant that sick and unhealthy members of the species were able to persist, adversely affecting the species as a whole. Looking upon this disruption of the natural order, our ancestors set out to find the animals that then wandered unhunted, and they unleashed upon them a synthetic wolfpack: hounds. By so doing, they at least partially fixed the rupture.

There were, of course, other ways to manage these species. They could be snared, to die in agony over several days. They could be poisoned, to die in agony over several days. As firearms developed, they could be shot. All these ways, however, were both unnecessarily harsh, uncertain, and indiscriminate, with healthy animals being more likely killed than unhealthy ones—the exact opposite of what is the case in houndwork. Thus, such solutions could never have rectified the rift in the natural order, but in some ways would have perpetuated it.

It has always puzzled me, in fact, that people who demonise hunting with hounds remain largely unconcerned with shooting, stalking, fishing, even snaring, or other kinds of wildlife management. The speed with which an animal was killed by a pack of hounds—when hunting live quarry was still permitted—was quite incomparable to the often drawn out death-experience of animals once human technology was introduced. 

We ought to be aware that the whole moral project of modernity has been one of departing from the moral law precisely by overcoming the natural order via ever more technology. The drama of late-modernity is principally one of various cracks appearing after decades of our violation of the natural order. Our hyper-mechanised agricultural industry is under-nourishing us. Our hyper-mechanised medical industry is killing us. Our transport industry is making our air filthy. Our trampling of the natural laws of family-building and procreation have led to a demographic decline that will soon see our populations terminated and replaced. By way of technology, we freed ourselves from the chains that bound us to our place in the cosmos, and, having broken those chains with the works of our hands, we have found that these manacles held us from plummeting into oblivion.

Those who hate the hunt—from my encounters with them—seem still to believe in the moral emancipation of humanity through technologization, and the sentimental illusion of ‘Progress’ that accompanies it. For this reason, anti-hunting sentiment has become bound up with veganism in recent years, a diet that is, in nearly all cases, more dependent than any other culinary fad on a highly technologized industry of processed foods. And that’s why shotguns, rifles, and rods will never be offensive to such people in the same way as a pack of hounds; a pack of hounds achieves something truly natural in a way that other field sports—for all their many merits—can never achieve. Hunting with hounds runs perfectly contrary to the narrative of domination over nature by use of technology, for it marks a return to the natural order and a humble submission to its ways, as well as the spontaneity that belongs to those ways. The point of controversy here, it turns out, is not that of a concern for the natural world but the will of those who would free themselves from it altogether.

I say that the drama of late-modernity is one of various cracks appearing after decades of violating of the natural order, but in fact they ceased to be cracks a while ago and have become cavernous gorges. Every current unfolding political programme—whether of the new nationalisms or the new globalisms—is seeking to address the problem of how to weather the storm of modernity’s final unravelling. If we’ve learned anything from history, the disappearance of the ways of living to which we’re accustomed will likely coincide with mass-distrust—already emerging, in fact—among an atomised population which possesses little to none of the concrete and habituated knowledge on which a responsible and accountable society can be built up. Suddenly it will become clear that all our political squabbling was weakening us when we were supposed to be civilisation-building, our pursuit of personal ‘authentic selfhood’ was isolating us when we were meant to be inducting ourselves into our communities, and our construction of ‘online communities’ of interfacing avatars has resulted in no community at all.

The hunt is almost the perfect antithesis of the ‘online community.’ An ‘online community’ is a collective established and joined by strangers who know nothing about one another except each other’s constantly ejaculated opinions. Via the ‘online community’ one is re-fashioned as a bodiless, placeless, opinion-generating spirit who can exercise the obnoxiousness that would be impossible in person. 

In the hunting community, on the other hand, we know little of each other’s opinions. We are bound together by the landscape with which we seek ever to intensify our intimacy. Our bond is not established by views or factions, but by our experience of belonging and the ongoing practice of manners that protects that experience of belonging. We have an ancient ceremony to celebrate, a ritual in which we momentarily mend the rupture that art brings to nature in the perfecting of it—by which we can also ask forgiveness from its Author. And we have a job to do, a job that brings all those who dwell in this little parcel of the world together in a shared affirmation of the concrete community to which we belong, and which tacitly mends the link with our ancestors who made it all possible. As Scruton put it, reflecting on his first hunt: “Here was a piece of England which was not yet alien to itself, a community which had yet to be ground into atoms and scattered as dust.”

Anti-hunting activists know of each other through their shared hatred of the hunt, which they express to one another in online forums. They only meet in person when they gather with their faces covered by balaclavas to terrorise the respectable folk who manage the land—land which they proceed to trample, uninvited. They are not a community but a swarm of ghosts who incarnate themselves in passing moments of self-righteous passion, and just as quickly vanish, unaccountable to the real community whose shared life they have disrupted. 

The hunt is certainly not the only kind of real community out there. There are plenty of such communities—the first in import among which is the parish—but these communities are only discovered on leaving the virtual, counterfeit community of online opinion-blurting spectres. It is necessary for those who wish to resurrect our broken world and begin anew the venture of civilisation-building to find such communities and induct themselves into their ways. By this process of organic initiation, the light of the moral law may again be rendered perceptible, which will be the first stage in mending our world.

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