The Ethics of “Fair Chase” Hunting


Marc Moffett, a philosopher and hunter, discusses Cecil the lion and more here.

One response to “The Ethics of “Fair Chase” Hunting

  1. Nice to see Mark being interviewed on this topic. There was a website called “” that had a bit more of an elaborate exposition of the “fair chase” ethic. The website is down now. But I quoted a key passage of their philosophy for a paper I planned on writing. Here it goes:

    “The concept of Fair Chase is the cornerstone of hunting ethics and is not only applicable in the pursuit of big game. How sportsmen conduct themselves and the image projected is just as important when you are hunting squirrels, rabbits, waterfowl, and turkeys as when pursuing big game. It also does not matter if hunting is done with a bow, rifle, crossbow, shotgun, or muzzleloader — the code of fair chase defines an honorable pastime. […] For example, some hunters take shots at deer in excess of 300 yards. They have rifles and ammunition capable of accuracy at such ranges. They practice at those ranges and are capable and confident of almost certain clean kills. Other hunters would never think of taking a shot at this distance. It’s legal. There is nothing in the game regulations about maximum allowable distances yet many will not take that shot. Why? Some do not have experience with this type of shooting. Others feel the risk is too high for wounding and therefore the practice is unethical. Others might consider that shooting at such ranges, even with a high probability of success, is simply too great an advantage over the prey and would choose to stalk in closer.” (n.a., 2011)

    That last part is clearly an agonistic honor rationale, according to which the hunter is supposed to take various measures to level the playing field between himself and the prey. Obviously an agonistic approach is at odds with a more utilitarian “culling” one, which would have us go out and as painlessly, efficiently, and soberly kill overpopulated species. That’s why (IMO) defenses of hunting on environmental grounds don’t work (if the above represents the correct approach to hunting, and assuming hunting is moral at all).

    One may think the field isn’t level unless the hunter puts himself in as much risk of life and limb as his prey. A possible reply by hunting advocates is that this practice would be unfair to the hunter, since he is a human and has more to lose by dying than the animal does. Suppose the animal has a future barely worth living. In that case, the hunter may say that, by disadvantaging himself such that he has a high probability of coming home empty-handed despite spending lots of money, time, and effort, the stakes are evened out between him and the quarry, since the animal’s life isn’t that important and the hunter’s time, money, and effort is (being high-quality human-time/money/effort).This might be the psychology (however tacit) that underwrites hunters’ sense of a hunt being a fair one, even though they are never at risk.

    This is the charitable interpretation. Another is that the fair chase ethos is just advice on how to have fun hunting. I may give a computer opponent in a game more powers the better I get at playing the game—-not because I owe the character a level playing field (he’s a fiction), but because it makes the game more fun. Maybe some hunters don’t give a damn about the hunt’s being “fair” so much as that it be challenging. I don’t know.


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