A Philosopher's Blog

They Eat Horses, Don’t They?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2011
Horse meat in mongolia

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In 2006,  the United States Congress banned the use of federal money for inspecting horses intended to be slaughtered for food. Since the UDSA requires the federal inspection of all food grade meat, this effectively ended the slaughter of horse for food in the United States. This ban was, however, lifted in November, 2011. This opens the doors the the slaughter of horses for food.

While some people might wonder why there might be a need to resume slaughtering horses for food, there are some arguments that have been presented in its favor. I will consider some of these before moving on to some objections against killing horses for food.

One stock argument is the economic argument that while American slaughterhouses are not profiting or creating horse slaughtering related jobs, other countries (such as Mexico and Canada) are doing so. By having moral and sentimental qualms about killing horses for food, the United States missed out on the opportunity to create jobs and make profits in the horse meat market. Rectifying this will allow the job creators to create more jobs and will enable Americans to profit from the slaughter of horses, rather than allowing other countries to dominate the horse meat market.

In these troubled economic times, this argument does have a certain appeal.  However, there is also the stocky reply that just because something could be profitable and created jobs, it does not entail that we should do so. For example, legalizing various drugs would create American jobs and allow legitimate companies to profit, however, some people might regard this as morally unacceptable. As another example, prostitution could be made legal across America, thus creating many legal jobs of various sorts (pun intended) and allowing American companies to make a profit. But this might be regarded as morally unacceptable. Likewise, if using horses for food is morally unacceptable, then it would seem that we should not do this-even if it creates profits and jobs.

A second argument that has been advanced is that the economic downturn has resulted in more people abandoning their horses or being unable to properly care for them. Since horses cannot be slaughtered for food, these horses are left to suffer. Being able to slaughter horses for food would solve the problem of these suffering horses.

One obvious reply to this argument is that there seems to be no need to allow horses to be slaughtered for food to address the alleged problem with abandoned or neglected horses. After all, it would seem more humane to use the federal money to care for them rather than inspect them to see if they are fit for hamburger. To use an analogy, imagine if it was suggested that we should start slaughtering children for food because the economic downturn has made it harder for parents to care for them. This would a rather horrific suggestion. While horse are not children, it seems horrific to say that we can best help them by seeing to it they are made into hamburger.

Even if it were accepted that the best way to address the abandoned or neglected horses was by killing them, it would hardly follow that this should be done by the meat industry in order to create meat to sell. That said, it could be argued that such meat should not go to waste. This principle would, it would seem, also indicate that the abandoned dogs, cats and other pets should also be inspected and made into food as a solution.  This might be taken as a reductio, or perhaps as a business plan.

A second obvious reply is that it seems unlikely that the abandoned or neglected horses could supply enough meat to actually make a significant economic difference.  That is, there are certainly not enough such horses to support an industry. As such, in order for the economic argument to work, another source of horses would be needed-such as horses raised specifically for food or horses that would be harvested from public lands. While this would allow the economic argument to remain, it would certainly reduce the impact of the “mercy killing” argument.

Not surprisingly, I am not in favor of slaughtering horses for food.  In part, as some proponents of horse slaughtering contend, this is due to sentimental reasons. My parents worked at a summer camp which had horses and, as such, I literally grew up with horses learning to ride them and care for them. It is, as might be imagined, difficult for me to see horses as food. After all, friends do not eat friends. Also, like many Americans, I grew up with cowboy movies and I can no more accept the idea of eating Trigger or Silver as I can accept the idea of eating Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or the Little Rascals.

This, of course, merely reports on my psychology and, as such, has no logical weight by itself. After all, there are plenty of folks who would have no qualms sitting down to a main disk of Trigger with a side of Lassie.

There are, of course, various stock arguments against eating any animals and they can be pressed into service here. However, my objective is to present some arguments specific to horses.

For my first argument, I will steal from Kant. While horses are non-rational beings and would thus be mere objects in Kant’s moral theory, Kant does argue that we have indirect duties to animals. Roughly put, he contends that we can treat animals as analogous to humans when assessing how we should treat them (at least in a somewhat limited context). For example, if Ted has a dog Blue that has served him faithfully and well, while Blue is but an object, a human who had served faithfully and well would have earned proper treatment. As such, it would be wrong of Ted to simply dispose of Blue because he is too old to serve any longer. Kant also contends that we should treat animals well because doing so, crudely put, trains us to treat humans well. Likewise, we should not treat animals badly because doing so trains us to treat humans badly. Since humans matter morally to Kant, this is why our treatment of animals would matter.

Horses have clearly served humans very well. They have fought in our wars, carried us around the world, and have been good companions.  As such, we owe them a debt for that service. To simply treat them as meat would be small minded and an act of ingratitude.

One obvious reply is that even if we assume that we might owe individual horses a debt, this does not apply to all horses. To use the obvious analogy, simply because one member of a family helped you out it does not follow that you then owe anything to other members of that family.

This does have an appeal to it. After all, the notion of owing a collective debt seems as mysterious as the notion of collective sin or collective rights. This is especially mysterious when one is speaking of owing a species. I do, as such, admit that this argument would only have bite with those who are willing to consider the notion that a collective can be owed for the action of the individuals who took specific actions.

For my second argument, I will steal from C.S. Lewis. In his classic The Abolition of Man, Lewis writes, “until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it -believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”

It is, of course, easy enough to take issue with Lewis. However, there is considerable appeal in his view and it seems appealing enough to extend it from objects to animals, actions and people.

For example, imagine that Ted the Just  falls into raging flood waters and Sally the Brave leaps in to save him. After she pulls him from the water, Larry the Loather  goes up and spits on her, saying “How contemptible and cowardly of you to have done that. I feel nothing but loathing for you, Sally.” Imagine that Ted says “What the hell? She was brave and deserves your respect!” If Larry says, “Fah, I feel no respect for her. I feel naught but contempt and loathing”, then he may very well be speaking honestly. However, it also seems clear that his feelings are not apt-Sally merits approval and respect regardless of what Larry feels or does not feel.

While it is obviously true that horses are regarded as some people as mere meat (and or profits), there is the question of whether or not this is to feel what horses in fact merit. Do they merit being looked at as something to be butchered and sold by the pound, or do they merit better?

As might be imagined, I contend that horses merit better. To regard them with sentiment and respect is not simply a matter of emotional sappiness or being soft-hearted. Rather, it is to have the sort of feelings that horses do, in fact, merit. As such, to mass slaughter them and make them into hamburger is to act in ways that horses do not deserve and in ways that diminish us emotionally and morally.

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4 Responses

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  1. Nick said, on December 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    So, if there was data showing how all animals have served humans well, say simply by contributing to a stable global ecology, then would it also pass as reasonable to ban the slaughtering of all animals for food? To be honest, I share your sentiments about horses, but I fail to see how other animals are less deserving of a slaughter ban on any other grounds than the partiaity of folks like you and me.

    Also, I could not help but wonder if you were attributing the intentionality of agents to dogs and horses in your thought experiments. I wonder if you did that intentionally and if you did that knowing of empirical support of such an attribution or not. If yes to either, I wonder if you might follow up on that.

    Great post. I think the subsequent conversation will be at least as good!

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      Nick,

      The argument could be generalized to include other animals. In fact, it could be argued that we should not kill animals for food, given that we have better and more efficient alternatives. This, of course, does raise the problem of what to do with the farm animals-one stock argument for eating animals is that we keep many of them alive for this purpose. For example, if we stopped eating pigs, then we would have no reason to feed all those pigs nor take care of them. The same for cows. While some pigs and cows might make it in the wild, it seems unlikely that land would be devoted to preserving them. The stock reply is, of course, that keeping animals alive just to eat them is not much of a moral justification.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 27, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      Nick,

      Having grown up around horses and dogs, I am inclined to regard them as having cognitive and emotional states that would classify them as intelligent. Descartes argued that animals lacked minds because they lacked language, but this strikes me as too narrow a requirement for intelligence. Dogs clearly read people’s moods, they recognize individuals, they can learn complex commands, and aside from dogs not being able to say “I am sad”, we have as much evidence that dogs and horses feel as we do in the case of people (behavior and expressions). So, I would say that both horses and dogs have enough capabilities to earn a status worthy of moral respect.

  2. magus71 said, on December 26, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Dolphin-free Tuna nets but no Tuna-free dolphin nets…


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