Motivations vs. Justifications: Hunting from the Heart

As conservationists, communication one of our most important tools. In many ways, the future health of wildlife depends on our ability to tell compelling stories from the heart that moves the public and politicians. As hunters, we sometimes allow ourselves to become baited into providing reactionary justifications for hunting and forget to focus on our personal motivations. Focusing on our motivations and speaking from the heart will create opportunities for genuine communication.

Hunters and non-hunters will need to engage in thoughtful and productive dialogue about hunting and conservation into the foreseeable future. If we accept this certainty, it is valuable to consider the most effective ways to present our perspectives.

But why are justifications perhaps the wrong approach? What is the difference between focusing on motivations over justifications? Most importantly, how can highlighting our motivations help advance conservation objectives?

The Justification Trap

Divisiveness and defensiveness define far too much of public discourse these days. Conversations about hunting are certainly not exempt from the problem of divisiveness. On the contrary, hunting often become a focal point for polarizing opinions. To move beyond, and hopefully avoid, these clashes of polarized opinions, we should avoid defensiveness and be aware of how we frame our stories.

Our ability to tell stories is a uniquely human characteristic. Story-telling has also been a profoundly important part of our collective history for thousands of years. Stories are effective through connection and emotion. Telling compelling stories has never relied on defending and justifying our actions.

When we justify hunting, we lose much of the nuance and specificity that make our motivations to hunt so rich and personally meaningful. We also risk overextending ourselves by searching for a universally applicable explanation for why hunting is right.

Both people and hunting are complex, so looking for a universally objective answer to a morally subjective question seldom works. Further, we often end up speaking defensively, trying to forcibly create in our audience the intellectual sensitivity to accept hunting. This approach often unintentionally shuts down discourse and debate rather than embracing and engaging with multiple perspectives.

Most of us hunt because we already feel secure in the understanding that hunting is morally right. So in contrast to justifying hunting on a generic level, the real power comes in connecting more personally.

Psychic Numbing

In his fantastic book about the current state of public discourse, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, author James Hoggan interviews Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. Slovic describes a phenomenon he refers to as psychic numbing.

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Psychic numbing helps explain “the difficulty we have with emotionally connecting to problems that are large in scale”. It refers to an underreaction to large problems because they seem removed from our immediate lives.

We see evidence of psychic numbing in the conservation world everyday. It helps explain why we have allowed the decline or extirpation of multiple caribou herds across North America.

Slovic explains that while there is no single reason for psychic numbing, statistics and sterile facts are ineffective in communicating the true meaning of large scale problems. In particular, dry facts “don’t spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action”.

In some cases, a barrage of facts that an audience perceives as a challenge to their value system can actually end up strengthening their original perspectives. This can be true even in cases where someone’s beliefs are factually incorrect. Too many facts can entrench the misconceptions we want to change. As illogical as this sounds, it is simply human nature.

In terms of conservation, what is a more effective way to spark action and how do we communicate the meaning and role of hunting in conservation actions?

From Logic to Emotion

People are more committed to their values than to facts. A common mistake in hunting advocacy is to over-saturate our audience with facts to convince them we are right.

As hunters, we proudly talk about the funds raised through hunting revenue and the ways that hunting has contributed to conservation over the previous century. The problem with this approach is that it often fails to engage with the public’s values and emotions.

When we talk about conservation issues on the scale of entire species and landscapes, the conversation often becomes so large that it lacks an emotional attachment for someone to grasp on to. And without that emotional anchor, it will be difficult for someone to identify with our perspective – particularly in an ethically charged issue such as hunting.

People engage in conservation actions because they care deeply about wildlife and habitats. We need to emotionally anchor our conversations about hunting.
Photo credit: MDNR

Part of the reason for the difficulty in attaching ourselves to dry facts goes back to our early days as a species. Humans have evolved to balance logic and emotion when evaluating risk and making decisions. When we make decisions about how to act, we rely on a careful, but often subconscious, balance of gut feeling and analytical evaluation.

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When discussing conservation issues, we should be aware of how we appeal to the balance of gut feeling and analytical evaluation. As Paul Slovic explains, dealing with massive issues such as species extinction requires slow, analytical thinking and science. However, there is a time and place to engage with the human instinct for fast thinking and gut reactions.

To the extent that the public will continue to rely on their gut feelings (and they will), Slovic suggests that in order to make people care about global issues, we need to make them more emotionally gripping. We shouldn’t ignore the facts or numbers, but “if a number doesn’t carry feeling, we don’t really understand it, and we won’t act on it.”

Motivations Connect to Emotion

Paul Slovic’s ideas have lessons for how we talk about both hunting and conservation issues. When we discuss hunting in the public sphere, we often encounter reactions rooted in the fast thinking, gut reactions I mentioned above. Therefore, we should not shy away from engaging emotionally in conversations and expressing our deep care and passion for conservation.

I believe thinking about our conversations in terms of motivations can be helpful. Where justifications tend to rely on foundations of large scale context and objective statistics, motivations are rooted in emotion and personal meaning.

Rather than justifying the righteousness of hunting, we can ground our discussions in the reasons we feel hunting is meaningful. When we highlight our own personal motivations, we are more likely to provide the needed emotional anchors for our audience.

One of the ways we can focus on emotionally engaging in conversations is to tell our stories. Rather than reciting facts and statistics, tell a story about a meaningful experience hunting. Frame the story sensitively in a way that a non-hunter can identify with our experiences.

Motivations vs. Justifications

It may seem like a subtle distinction on the surface, but consider the difference between two scenarios that both attempt to convey why I value hunting and my identity as a hunter.

I can explain to someone that I value hunting because hunters have historically supported revenue generation systems such as the U.S. Pittman-Robertson Act and because in 2017 alone, donors contributed over $86 million to Ducks Unlimited, many of whom are hunters.

On the other hand, I can frame this discussion in terms of motivations. I can say that I participate in hunting because I want to personally contribute my money to conservation programs. I also want to participate firsthand in the great habitat restoration projects of organizations like Ducks Unlimited. Being part of a community of people who care about wildlife is powerful and gives me a sense of meaning.

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Both of these scenarios are true. But when we frame things in terms of our personal motivations, it becomes very difficult for someone to dismiss or dispute our perspective. Ideally, framing our discourse in terms of our personal motivations will also reduce people’s desire to dismiss our perspective. How can anyone argue that it doesn’t give me deep personal joy to be part of a community and to know I care about wildlife?


Overly objective and emotionally-detached approaches to discourse can too easily fall into defensive justifications for hunting. Impersonal and defensive discourse can often close off genuine listening. At worst, this approach can contribute to animosity in what are already ethically charged issues.

“Slovic urged sensitive communicators to present information in a way that touches emotions and makes things imaginable.”

– James Hoggan, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot

It is important to remember to take stock of why talk about hunting and what our goals are for the conversations we have. If we are trying to convey to someone why hunting is so meaningful to us, we need to give them something they can identify with so they can understand our perspective. In that sense, people rarely identify with dray statistics and numbers. Instead, they identify with emotion and personal meaning.

So when we talk about hunting and want to explain our relationship as hunters with conservation, we should try to resist the accidental urge to justify hunting itself. We should focus instead on what motivates us personally to hunt, why it brings us joy, and what we truly hope to contribute to wildlife as hunters.

6 Comments on “Motivations vs. Justifications: Hunting from the Heart

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