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Animal Justice?

1,181 words

During a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I followed coverage of an incident in which a grizzly bear killed a bear hunter on the Idaho-Montana border on September 18.

Two hunters from Nevada had licenses to hunt black bears. But 20-year-old Ty Bell shot a grizzly bear. (Grizzlies are a protected species, and it is pretty easy to tell them apart from black bears, but maybe Bell was inexperienced.) The two hunters followed the bear after they wounded it, and it charged them, killing Bell’s hunting partner, 39-year-old Steve Stevenson, who tried (all too successfully) to distract the bear away from attacking Bell. Then Bell shot the bear multiple times, killing it.

In the news coverage and discussions I followed, I noticed that some treated the death of the bear almost as a source of consolation in an otherwise horrible tale. “Well, at least they got the bugger who did it.” I admit that the bear was probably a goner after it was shot for the first time. And when Bell killed it, he was clearly in a kill or be killed situation. But for me, the fact that the bear died was not a bright spot at all. It just made a bad situation worse.

Others of a more ecological bent mourned the bear and took solace in the fact that one of the hunters died.

Clearly, some people regard the death of the bear as justice. Others regard the death of the hunter as justice. But what kind of justice? Animal justice, it turns out.

Neither death is just in a “human” sense of the term. The human concept of justice is premised on a fundamental divide between animals and humans: humans are moral agents, who can choose to do right or wrong and therefore can be held accountable for their actions. Animals are not moral agents. They face no choice between good or evil. They simply act according to their natures, and they can’t be blamed for that, even when this might conflict with human interests.

When I swat a mosquito, I am not executing it for a crime; I am simply killing a pest. I do not blame it for sucking my blood, but a “mosquito rights” advocate might blame me for swatting it, since I do have a choice in the matter. Most people, however, think that killing pests is morally correct or indifferent. But for humans, it still has an inescapably moral dimension.

On this account, the bear is not to be blamed for attacking the hunters who wounded it. It was merely doing what any wounded bear would do. And although the hunter should be punished for shooting a protected type of bear to begin with, he can’t be blamed for finishing the job.

The bear did not get its just deserts for killing a man. And the man who died certainly did not get his just deserts, since he did not even shoot the bear, and even if he had, mistaking a grizzly for a black bear should not be a capital offense. (Bear in mind that he was a licensed hunter, not a poacher.)

As I see it, two living things, both of which have value, are dead. There is nothing to feel good about here. (Yes, humans are more plentiful than grizzly bears, but to my mind, that is counter-balanced by the fact that as a human I have more in common with the hunter than the bear.)

So whence the sense that justice has been done to the bear or the hunter?

Nietzsche provides a clue in the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, “On ‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like,” where he examines the construction of human justice — the ideas of moral agency, freedom of choice, and responsibility — on the foundations of an entirely different “animal” sense of justice.

Nietzsche argues that human justice is ultimately founded in a kind of animal sadism. When an animal is bothered or wounded, it lashes out. When we are hurt, we want to hurt back. It feels better. It feels bad to be a sufferer. It feels better when we make somebody else suffer in turn. We thereby regain our sense of agency and power.

A key point here is that it does not matter who suffers as long as somebody does. If the party who caused our suffering is unavailable, somebody else will do. We are dealing here with a form of consciousness in which the concept of guilty and innocent parties does not exist. Nor does the concept of making the punishment proportional to the crime. The important thing is simply the discharge of the animal anger and sadism stirred up by our injury.

It sounds monstrous, and it is. But it should not sound foreign, for it is the core of Christianity. Christians believe that they have been saved by Jesus suffering in our place. Jesus, of course, is innocent, and we are guilty. But the fact that God is willing to torture the innocent in the place of the guilty means that what really matters is not guilt or innocence at all, but merely the satisfaction of divine sadism, for which any victim will do. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, the Christian idea of vicarious atonement is that the just God tortures the innocent God to appease the loving God, which obviously has nothing to do with love or justice but merely sadism.

In the case of the hunter and the bear, those who identify themselves with humanity felt the death of a human as a personal assault. It pained them. And they felt some relief to learn that the bear died as well. It was a vicarious discharge of anger, a sense that “justice” (animal justice) had been done, even though the bear really did nothing wrong.

Those who identify themselves with nature against man took the bear’s wound personally, as they take all of man’s assaults on nature.  Thus they feel a vicarious discharge of anger when they hear of an animal getting the best of a hunter (which happens very, very rarely), even when the hunter really did nothing wrong.

Animal justice isn’t really justice, which requires that only responsible parties be punished, and that the punishment fit the crime. Human justice may be a construct founded on animal instincts, but it is a necessary construct nonetheless. It is superior to animal justice because it is shaped by human reason.

But it is also important to remind ourselves that mankind has not really broken with nature. Our sense of animal justice is always there, and it is the explanation of a great deal of human injustice and evil.

We should be suspicious of too great a zeal for punishment, for it may just be a mask of sadism. But animal sadism is fundamentally healthy, even though it is irrational. Thus we should be even more suspicious of mercy, which may also be just a mask for decadence, the lack of animal vitality that is a sign of sickness or deformity.


  1. Hrolf
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.”

    Robinson Jeffers

  2. Sandy
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Strictly from a “preserve the race” point of view I think Greg is onto something with his statement A key point here is that it does not matter who suffers as long as somebody does. If the party who caused our suffering is unavailable, somebody else will do. We are dealing here with a form of consciousness in which the concept of guilty and innocent parties does not exist. “The party who caused our suffering” is the others and the European male is so neutered these days he can only go out and shoot some defenseless animal when he should be fighting for his race.

  3. Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article. This would also fit into some of Jack London’s themes, no?

  4. Alaskan
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Great piece! I see this kind of thing all the time where I live. Bears, moose and other wild animals interact with humans on a regular basis, even within the largest city, Anchorage. Each year, people stumble into a sow with cubs, or a bear guarding a fresh kill, and are shocked when these animals act naturally, and attack the encroaching human. Even if the human is not killed, Fish and Game is quick to dispatch the poor creature in order to “prevent it from harming another human”. In reality, its merely exacting revenge. Naturally, the cubs are usually killed as well since they can’t fend for themselves and zoos rarely need more bears. The same thing happens with moose who attack. When this happens, it is published in the local papers, aired on the news and the public seems to celebrate. It’s quite disgusting, but entirely understandable since most people support the wholesale slaughter of animals anyway by eating meat. Most are not only sadistic in this way, but callous. Kant and Schopenhauer warned against the abuse of animals in order to avoid becoming callous and desensitized in this manner. Tom Regan’s “subject of a life” model is also quite substantive. Of course, a much more robust animal rights approach was developed in the Vedic tradition and speaks for itself. Real men care about animals!

  5. Posted September 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Just to present an alternative perspective on this, the Vedic (Hindu) view towards animal killing is that it impacts the killer’s karma, such that for every animal that is killed by an individual, both the spirit of the killer and the animal will have to be born again in a form which will enable the animal to kill the hunter, to maintain the karmic balance. An animal, for its part, possesses no karma since animals are not responsible for their actions, and they are therefore not subject to any karmic punishment if they kill a human, although from a Vedic standpoint, in the context of this story, it is entirely possible that the bear was guided to kill the hunter as a karmic reaction for one of his previous killings.

    There are certain rituals that can be performed which, if an animal is killed within a sacrificial context to a deity who accepts animal sacrifice, will prevent the killer from absorbing the karmic reaction, but certainly today most Hindus do not sacrifice animals at all.

    As for the mosquito example that Greg gave, there are also karmic reactions from the killing of insects, albeit not as strong, and also the impact of such killing can be lessened given the context. The killing of a mosquito, for example, can be justified because the killer might be afraid of contracting malaria or other diseases.

  6. George P. Stimson Jr
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t see as detailed coverage of this event as you probably did, Greg, but what I did read raises a lot of questions in my mind. Like, did Bell actually think that the bear was a black bear and not a grizzly? How much hunting experience had the guy had? Was he aware that grizzlies were in the area and that they were a protected species? It’s my understanding that these guys were about as far out into the back country as it’s possible to go. They didn’t stumble across some bear at some urban garbage dump. Did they go out there like “Laurel and Hardy Go Hunting”?
    This guy’s inexperience cost another man his life. In similar circumstances one could be charged with some degree of manslaughter for such carelessness. Are any charges going to brought against Bell? Even for shooting the bear? Or are they going to let everything slide because of the “tragedy”?
    I don’t feel any empathy or sorrow for the guy who got killed. Nature is no joke, and man does not dominate it. And if man thinks that he is in control of what’s going on in the natural world he’s going to have a rude awakening some day. This story just demonstrates that basic reality once again. Consider it a fable.

  7. Andrew
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Greg’s concluding remark:

    “Thus we should be even more suspicious of mercy, which may also be just a mask for decadence, the lack of animal vitality that is a sign of sickness or deformity.”

    Much to ponder.

  8. George P. Stimson Jr
    Posted September 24, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  9. Kiwi
    Posted September 24, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Hello Dr. Johnson. Thank you for this compelling article. I enjoyed your recent interviews with Dr. Sunic and Robert Stark. I’m happy to have found this website and I look forward to regular visits.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted September 24, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your kind words. We are always glad to have new readers. I hope it becomes addictive!

  10. Stronza
    Posted September 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Thus we should be even more suspicious of mercy, which may also be just a mask for decadence, the lack of animal vitality that is a sign of sickness or deformity.

    Except when mercy is being shown toward you?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted September 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      Even then, although it is not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth.

  11. George P. Stimson Jr
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “Yes” to everything you’ve said.

  12. Posted September 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    When the West was healthy, we exterminated quite a few animal species. Crocodiles were on the brink of extinction till the so-called animal rights associations intervened to make them a protected species. Now crocodiles have resumed their man-eating habits, including a clueless woman who works in one of those associations in Australia.

    Presently, like the rest of westerners Aussies are so nuts that they even protect the most poisonous spiders, snakes, medusas and even the wild dogs who occasionally fed on white babies—not to mention the Neanderthalesque Australian aborigines.

    When values are revaluated again and both Christianity and secular liberalism become totally discredited; when we can talk again of the West with proud as in the times of Pericles, Augustus and Shakespearean England, we will resume the extermination of every man-killer beast.

    Meanwhile I have no choice but to share the air I breathe with lots of feminized western males…

    • White Republican
      Posted September 28, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink


      I’m surprised you didn’t say that koalas drop out of the trees to attack people, and should therefore be exterminated. You evidently know little about Australian wildlife or the laws regarding it. You make it sound as if species that are both dangerous and protected are free to roam within the human environment. With the exception of Australian Aborigines — and the ever-increasing numbers of anthropoids from Asia and Africa — this is not the case.

      • Posted September 28, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        @ “this is not the case”

        I don’t own a TV but when I visit family I turn on the wild animal programs, and I’ve watched several documentaries showing poisonous spiders and snakes in Australia. Koalas are cute and I’d never dare to kill them, but at least in these programs the poisonous snakes are protected. The Aussies are encouraged not to kill them when they enter their homes or cars, but to call the equivalent of 911 and an expert captures the offending snake and then releases it in the wild. It goes without saying that there’s no plan to exterminate either the snakes or the extremely poisonous spiders (let alone the anthropofagic crocodriles).

        Are you saying that the TV programs I’ve watched are inaccurate?

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