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Personal Ethicsby Don H. Meredith © 1999
(published in the September/October 1999 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

ice fishing

While writing last month's column on wounding and loss, I found myself taking off on a tangent to discuss personal ethics, or how we make the moral decisions we do in the field. Space limitations forced me to cut that section and stick with the subject at hand. But I think personal ethics are worthy of further consideration, especially when discussing Anne Causey's questions (see "Hunting's Image") and other issues that will be presented in this column.

Each of us has a personal ethic, a code by which we live our lives. Much of the code is taught to us by our parents, mainly by example. The code is also influenced by our religious upbringing and the people with whom we choose to associate.

A personal ethic is different from the rules laid down by society through its laws. As a society, we have determined that it is wrong to harm another human being, or steal his or her property. Most personal ethics include these societal rules. But some do not. Criminals have personal ethics that allow them to regularly break laws that harm people and their property.

Although not criminals, many of us pick and choose certain laws that we will or will not obey. A good example is our speed limit laws. Highways have specified speed limits to protect people from being injured or killed. Yet, drive down any one of those highways and you will see people driving well over those limits. Their personal ethics let them break such a rule, and indeed suffer any consequences, whether to themselves or other people and property.

Others of us have personal ethics that exceed those laid down by society. Societal laws and regulations are what we have decided as a group are minimally acceptable behavior. But individuals may choose to strive for a higher standard. How we treat other people, our homes and the environment are often governed by higher standards than those laid down by society.

The ethics we use while hunting and fishing are closely tied to our personal ethics. Talk with a variety of anglers and hunters and you soon learn that personal ethics vary widely. Some people consider compliance with fish and wildlife laws and regulations a game they play with authorities where they are in the wrong only if they're caught breaking the rules. Others comply with the regulations but show little respect for the resource. Still others obey the rules, seek to understand why they are in place, and often exceed them. An angler who decides not to catch the limit and carefully releases fish that he could have legally kept is one example. Another is someone who won't fish in a "catch-and-release only" (zero catch limit) water body because he believes such harassment doesn't show respect for the resource.

Personal ethics change over time, as does their strength in controlling our actions. When we are young and seeking experiences, we may let ethics slide and do things we regret later. If our ethical training was strong, we use the guilt we feel to change our behavior. As we get older, we better understand the importance of the role our ethics play in how others judge us and, most importantly, how we judge ourselves. One definition of personal ethics is that it is how we behave when no one else is watching.

Fishing and hunting are often done when no one else is watching. So what we do tells us a lot about ourselves, and sometimes we don't like what we're told. Fortunately, we can and do change. It has often been said that hunters pass through stages of behavior as they develop, from just wanting to bag as many animals as possible, through hunting for trophies and concentrating on technique, to hunting for the enjoyment of the experience itself — without particular concern for whether animals are taken or not. As we pass through these stages, our ethics strengthen and change, and become more important to us, especially if we have young people looking to us for guidance as to how they should behave.

Personally, I think these challenges to one's character are one of the many reasons I'm attracted to hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits. When I'm at home or at work doing routine tasks, my actions are predictable. I've already justified them to myself and others, and I'm comfortable in doing them. But when I'm away from home and outdoors, my life is not so determined. What I do is dictated more by random events than precise planning. Under such conditions, I'm more likely to be challenged to validate who I am as a person. Should I release this fish? Can I identify that animal? Is it close enough to make a good shot? Should I report that violation of regulation? By answering such questions, I'm challenged to become a better person.

Sometimes the questions posed are true moral dilemmas, where you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. For example, if your hunting buddy by mistake shoots an animal for which he does not have a licence and tag but you do, should you tag it? If you do, you both will be in violation of law; but if you don't, you may risk a friendship. Such dilemmas force us to look deep into ourselves and the consequences of our actions.

Our personal ethics come into play every day of our lives, from how we treat our family, friends and colleagues to how we deal with our environment. Others judge us by our actions, and that is certainly true when it comes to hunting and fishing. Although much of what we do is hidden from public view, much is not, and our ethics and character as a group are often questioned. If we want to retake the moral high ground that hunting and fishing once held among outdoor activities, then we each must seek to practice high ethical standards and encourage such practice in others.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner