Charles J. List

A. Dionys de Leeuw, in a recent discussion paper, presents a view of angling which, he says, implies that angling is an "act of cruelty."(1) He thus claims that angling "requires two justifications, one for the killing of fish and another for the intentional inflicting of avoidable pain and suffering in fish."(2) It is the latter claim--the "cruelty issue" as de Leeuw names it--which I wish to consider. My argument seeks to establish that it is false that angling is cruel, and that therefore one of the implications de Leeuw draws from his view is false. If so, de Leeuw's argument either has a false premise (assuming the argument is valid) or the argument itself is invalid. I shall argue that de Leeuw's argument does indeed have a false premise.

The conclusion de Leeuw draws that angling is cruel may mean either that anglers are cruel in that they intentionally inflict avoidable pain and suffering on fish, or that angling as an activity is cruel in that it has as a necessary component an activity which inflicts avoidable suffering on fish. As to the first point, while it may be true that some anglers actually intend to inflict suffering on fish, I believe that the vast majority would deny this: their intentions are as varied as those of the hunters de Leeuw discusses: "the pursuit of game, involvement with nature, obtaining one's own food...."(3) Now it may be that such people are rationalizing their intention to cause suffering, but in that case their cruelty becomes at most an oblique intention, and of the same variety as that of a gardener who uses pesticides to improve the garden but obliquely causes the death or suffering of birds. If this is the kind of cruelty de Leeuw is laying at the feet of anglers, I am afraid we must all be similarly guilty.

But it is clear, I think, that de Leeuw is not really claiming that all anglers themselves are cruel people but rather that they voluntarily engage in an activity which is cruel. This would be in line with the comments of others interested in the relevance of animal interests to human respect. For example, Tom Regan says of sport hunting and trapping that "though those who participate in it need not be cruel or evil people, what they do is wrong."(4)Perhaps then, what de Leeuw means by the cruelty charge is that though anglers need not be cruel the activity of angling is cruel because it is essentially an activity which focuses on, as he says, "the animal's suffering, fear, and struggle to avoid death."(5) This claim, as we shall see, is the false premise of his argument, and thus, the one which is responsible for the false conclusion that angling is cruel.

I must admit that I do not understand how an activity can be cruel if the people who engage in it are not, or need not be, cruel. Activities, if Aristotle is to be believed, are responsible for states of character: "states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these."(6) One would then expect that engaging in a cruel activity like angling would result in a cruel state of character, i.e., anglers would be cruel, because their activity is. But if, as I have already argued, all angler's cannot be charged with cruelty, then there is some reason to think the activity itself is not cruel.

Having now raised one doubt about the truth of the conclusion de Leeuw derives, we should examine his premise which is given various formulations but the following is representative: "The enjoyment of catching fish for sport...consists of purposely inflicting fear, pain, and suffering on fish by forcing them to violently express their interest to stay alive."(7) Now, if it were true that the enjoyment of angling, i.e., the core of angling consists of purposely inflicting suffering, then it would indeed follow that angling is a cruel activity, because enjoying the infliction of suffering is not merely cruel but, frankly, sadistic.

There are important independent reasons for thinking that the "core" claim is false.

First, the "core" of angling, some have argued, is providing food. That is, the goal or purpose is not enjoyment or pleasure at all. These, as Luce says in the

passage quoted by de Leeuw, are "incidental to angling." The suffering inflicted on fish is justified by the greater good of providing necessary food.(8)

This reply to the core claim will not work, however, for the "catch and release" angler who derives no nutritional benefit from the fish. Perhaps de Leeuw's cruelty challenge is to these anglers in particular. Had de Leeuw carefully examined his sources, a response would have been obvious. Roderick Haig-Brown, for example, who de Leeuw misquotes to the effect that angling "needs no justification," actually expends a great deal of effort on this very issue.(9) For instance, Haig-Brown openly declares that he "want[s] fish from fishing, but I want a great deal more than that, and getting it is not always dependent upon catching fish." He continues, that he is pleased "not by one thing but by many things, ..., that grow out of the sport."(10) Haig-Brown would thus deny that the core enjoyment of angling is catching fish. This sentiment is repeated too often by others to be merely an idiosyncracy.(11) Hence, even for catch and release anglers, the challenge that their activity is focused on inflicting suffering misses its mark.

Finally, we may doubt whether the "enjoyment of catching fish for sport" or the pleasure of the activity is really the goal at all, whatever it "consists of" or whatever causes it. There is no denying that angling is an enjoyable activity. The question is whether this enjoyment is the goal of the activity. Aristotle believes that pleasure or enjoyment accompanies the achievement of excellence in activity. If angling presents an opportunity to achieve various kinds of excellence, perhaps this is its goal, and the enjoyment of the achievement is merely a bonus. If so, there is no reason to believe that the enjoyment of purposely inflicting suffering is the core of angling.

In conclusion, nothing that I have said here supplies a "moral justification" for angling. That is another, and very much larger task.


1. A. Dionys de Leeuw, "Contemplating the Interests of Fish: The Angler's Challenge," Environmental Ethics 18 (1996): 373-390.

2. Ibid., p. 388.

3. Ibid., p. 383, 4.

4. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 356.

5. Op. cit., p. 384.

6. Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics," in The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), ed. Richard McKeon, 1103b, 20; p. 953.

7. Op. cit., p. 387. The ellipsis here is important, because it replaces "in large measure." de Leeuw elsewhere (p. 380, 387, 389) speaks of hooking and catching fish as the "core" or even the "entire core" of angling.

8. A. A. Luce, Fishing and Thinking (Camden, Maine: Ragged Mountain Press, 1992), p. 174. It should be noted that Luce presents a sophisticated defense of angling against the very challenge de Leeuw raises.

9. Roderick L. Haig-Brown, A River Never Sleeps (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1974), pp. 266-274.

10. Ibid., p. 268.

11. See Joseph L. Sax, Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1980), pp. 27-32.

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