DOING GOOD ISN’T EASY—BEING AN ETHICAL HUNTER
A BULL SNAKE AND SOME PHEASANT
By Michael G. Sabbeth
Most people want to be good; and based on many conversations, most hunters—everyone I’ve spoken with—want to be honorable and ethical. For them, honoring the animal, the land, the hunting culture and themselves are sources of pride and self-respect. But to be an honorable hunter, wanting is not enough. Doing good, doing what’s right, is the result of several complex thoughts, actions and character traits.
What does it take for a hunter to be honorable? I share two situations that offer lessons on how a virtuous hunter behaves and which show important character qualities a hunter needs to do what is right. This first story was told to me by a fifth-grader. Some of his classmates were throwing rocks at a bull snake slithering through bushes in the school playground. This youngster tried to stop the rock throwing, saying the snake was harmless and hurting or killing it was cruel. The classmates rejected his request. When the little fellow persisted, the classmates threatened him.
When the youngster finished telling me his story, he looked at me with searching eyes and asked a question that penetrated to my soul: “Why is doing good so hard?” That question has been asked for thousands of years. I haven’t found a satisfactory answer.
My other story is about a teenager hunting pheasant on public land with some friends. A dog flushed several pheasant that flew onto private property, where they had no permission to enter. The friends and their dogs chased the pheasant, but the young man telling me this story refused to go along, even though the friends taunted him and one friend said, “We’re not inviting you to join us again.”
THE LIMITS OF ETHICS
“The most powerful person is he who has himself in his own power.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman Philosopher (5 BC-65 AD)
What would you do in each of these situations? Before you answer, let’s think about how to how to figure out what’s right and what can motivate you to do what’s right.
Ethics is the study of what is right and virtuous. Ethics guides us to know what is good. With that knowledge, people should be encouraged to do good. If a person knows what is good, the assumption is the person will do good, or at least is more likely to do good. Obviously, and unfortunately, reality shows that this assumption is often not accurate.
Most of us know what’s right in any situation. For example, you don’t injure or kill living things just to be destructive and you don’t go along with breaking the law. However, more than knowledge is needed to do good. A person also needs moral courage and confidence. Moral courage requires, at times, standing up to or rejecting the requests of other people. These two stories are examples of the need for moral courage. It took courage for the fifth grader to stand up to those willing to injure or kill a harmless reptile. It took moral courage for the pheasant hunter not to join his trespassing friends.
The fifth grader showed moral courage, but he also had confidence in his beliefs and values. He was confident he knew what was right and that his actions were ethical. Even when his classmates turned on him like a mob, his confidence in his values motivated him to continue to try to make his classmates stop their bad behavior. The confidence the non-trespassing pheasant hunter had in his values was sufficient to overrule the emotion and peer pressure to act unethically and illegally.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
The fifth grader is correct—it is difficult to be good. It is difficult to stand up for what is right. Sometimes you can’t do it alone. In the snake story, the youngster would have benefitted from help from teachers and any other adults in the playground. Sometimes, as in the pheasant story, you have to act alone and stand up against a group even if you are not trying to change the behavior of the others. The pheasant hunter probably knew he could not stop his friends’ trespassing.
I share the pheasant story to make a point about friends and friendship. The human tendency to do what friends want you to do, that is, to give in to peer pressure, is among the most powerful human forces. So, let’s take a look at the magnetic power of friendship to figure out when, if ever, it should influence our actions.
What kind of friends did this non-trespassing hunter have? Friends that wanted him to break the law; that wanted him to risk having his firearm confiscated; that wanted him at risk for fines and perhaps lose his hunting privileges. Maybe they’re friends, but they cannot logically be considered friends that care about his best interests. At that moment at least, they were not good friends.
A person can become stronger and more confident when, as in this pheasant hunter’s case, he analyzes and figures out the cost of a friendship—that is, what a person must give up to keep the friends. Bad friends making decisions for you is foolish. My point is, that thinking and reasoning can make a person morally stronger. That’s why every person has a moral obligation to think. Many people don’t think of course, but that fact does not change the reality that thinking is a moral duty. Only by thinking can a person know right from wrong and what is better or worse.
Morally strong people are more likely to act morally. People become morally stronger by thinking about and understanding the consequences of their actions. The morally strong person has control, or more control, over him or herself. This understanding of human nature is seen in Seneca’s statement about being the most powerful person. Thucydides, an Athenian historian, expressed a similar and equally important idea that links happiness to courage: “The secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage.” The person, hunter or not, that has moral courage is often a happier person and happy people make the world better.
We should be very cautious about giving to others the power to influence us about right and wrong. Understand that morality—right and wrong—is not determined by the number of believers. Whether one person disagrees with you or whether one hundred million people disagree with you has nothing to do with whether you are right or wrong. Either you are right or you are not. Either facts support your ideas and actions or they do not. Either your opinions and ideas have moral support or they do not. Numbers are irrelevant; character and honor are.