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.