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Posted by on Nov 22, 2013 in Featured, Philosophy | 15 comments

Moral hysteria as substitute for thought

Moral hysteria, and a culture of soundbites and headlines, can get in the way of seeing the merits of an alternative point of view, and perhaps changing our minds on an issue. The whole point of intellectual discourse, reading and writing is to discover where we might be wrong, and to change our minds (including sometimes turning to agnosticism) on particular issues where we seem to be wrong.

Instead, we mostly look for evidence that reinforces our existing view, and alarmingly, sometimes allow criticism or contrary evidence to serve to reinforce our existing belief (this mechanism is known as the “backfire effect”).

The case is that of Melissa Bachman, who has recently been the subject of large helpings of social media vitriol, including petitions directed at the South African government asking for her to be barred from entering the country in perpetuity. Bachman, in case you didn’t know, is a so-called “trophy killer” who recently shot and killed the lion pictured below.


Now, whatever you might think of hunting – or even eating meat – there’s absolutely no reason to think that she had done anything illegal, and therefore, anything that merited a request to bar her from the country in perpetuity. But that’s not what the petition is based on. Instead, it asserts that she should be barred from the country for being

an absolute contradiction to the culture of conservation, this country prides itself on. Her latest Facebook post features her with a lion she has just executed and murdered in our country.

The problem, of course, is that the “culture of conservation” operates within a legal framework, and that legal framework currently permits hunting, so long as the necessary licences have been obtained. If you’ve crossed your legal t’s, you can “execute and murder” (in case the execution fails, it’s good to have a backup plan) as many of the creatures you’ve been given permission to execute and murder.

The fact that you are photographed with the non-human animal that you’ve killed should not be regarded as morally salient. Critics have used emotive language such as “bloodthirsty” to describe Bachman’s hunting, even though there’s nothing that’s objectively more bloodthirsty about her photographing the lion that she has killed than there is my photographing of a particularly juicy and tender steak. I could post a steak picture every day for a month, and not be the subject of such a petition – even if I were to not give a damn about how humanely the cows (or whatever) were hunted, a concern that Bachman and other hunters might have, but be unable to reflect in a photograph.

Ivo Vegter, a former colleague at that fine online newspaper, the Daily Maverick, puts it well in the conclusion of his column “In defence of a lion killer“:

South Africa officially considers Bachman a welcome and valued visitor, and rightly so. Even if you disagree, and you arrogantly think you have the moral authority to judge her arrogance, the real story is this. Your smug superiority risks depriving South Africa of tourism revenue and employment. It risks depriving the country of much-needed funding for conservation. It risks reducing the value of our wildlife, which reduces the incentive for private farm owners to breed and protect game. Hypocritical anger is a greater threat to conservation than Bachman’s rifle will ever be.

I’d urge you to read his column, and some of the many comments to it. But in short, whether or not you are opposed to hunting, issues such as these are rarely simple. The vast majority of issues are, in fact, quite complicated. If you care about your country’s economy, you might need to (pragmatically) allow for hunting under certain conditions, for a certain time. If you care about the fate of a particular species, you might need to (pragmatically) allow for hunting under certain conditions, for a certain time. And so on.

The danger, of course, is that a pragmatic concession towards some ultimate goal can sometimes be difficult to rewind, leaving us stuck with the pragmatic concession long after it’s needed. But insofar as that concern is legitimate – and it often is – it’s not the one we typically hear. Instead, we typically hear screaming and stamping of feet, and that inspires little but turning your back and walking away.