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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Why is it worse to slaughter horses (for food) than to slaughter cows (for food)?

I can totally understand why many people are vegetarian or vegan. In particular, I can understand why they might not want to give their financial support to factory farming by eating the meat of animals raised under factory farm conditions. Similar considerations can apply to eating eggs and drinking milk - if the product was gained only at the expense of animal suffering, that seems, to me, to be a problem. Irrespective of whether we are somehow objectively bound to care about the suffering of non-human animals, I actually do care (this sentence can be ignored by everybody ... except for those few people who might want to pounce, and object, by asking me, "But, dude, aren't you some kind of moral sceptic?").

I "get" all of that, and I've read much of Peter Singer's work (for example) on animal ethics (or, rather, human ethics relating to the treatment of non-human animals). This post is, therefore, not actually about justifying the slaughter of non-human animals for food. Whether or not that can be justified in some or all circumstances is a much bigger, more general question than I'm raising here. Instead, I want to focus on a rather narrow point.

Over the last few days, I've seen quite a lot of people on Facebook sharing this article, which decries new legislation in the US that, supposedly, relaxes or ends a ban on slaughtering horses for food for human beings.

What I don't "get" is how such a species-defined ban could have been justified in the first place. If we don't ban the slaughter of bulls and cows for food, what is the justification for a ban on slaughtering horses for the same purpose ... assuming that the horses are treated no worse than the bulls or cows (which could be ensured by appropriate regulations)? Unless it's being suggested that horses are somehow more sensitive, and therefore suffer more (perhaps their greater intelligence makes them more aware of what is happening to them?), what is the relevant distinction here? No argument relating to different vulnerabilities or sensitivities is developed in the article.

It appears that the justification for treating horses and cattle differently is not based on the inherent cognitive and physiological properties (and associated vulnerabilities or sensitivities) of horses, compared to cattle. Instead, it seems to be based on the thought that the respective kinds of animals have different cultural significances in the US. But of course, the US is supposed to be a society marked by social pluralism, so why should that distinction be a factor for the law to take into account? The law should not be imposing a particular set of cultural significances merely for its own sake - at least not by means of outright prohibitions.

(As an aside, there might sometimes be justification for promoting certain cultural values through government programs that ultimately depend on taxes to underwrite them. Even if that's so, using outright bans, which leaves citizens no room to dissent in their own lives, is another matter. As with much else, I devote some discussion to this in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.)

I confess that my stomach turns at the thought of eating horsemeat. That is simply because of the way I've been socialised. I recoiled in horror the one time I was actually offered horsemeat in a restaurant (this happened in Padua, Italy). But I don't expect the law to impose my socialised tastes on everyone else who lives in the same pluralistic society as I do (in my case, Australia, but the same would apply to the US). It's clear, moreover, that Western societies don't need laws that, in effect, ban eating horsemeat (Italy, for example, seems to get along just fine without such laws). Nor is this a situation where horses are an endangered species that we can continue to enjoy only if we take special protective measures.

So how are such laws (as opposed, say, to regulations requiring that horses which are slaughtered for food to be treated at least as humanely as cattle) to be justified?

Every time I read the article in question, it simply makes me question the rationality of the organisation concerned: the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Or if not its rationality, its intellectual honesty. The piece reads like blatant emotionally-manipulative propaganda. It could only have the effect of making me think of the organisation as less credible than I might otherwise.

By all means tell me what you think I'm missing here.


Chrys Stevenson said...

I have to agree, Russell. I'm a horse-lover, having ridden since I was 5 years old. But, it seems to me, if horses are going to be slaughtered, there is no good reason not to use the meat.

I agree that abattoirs should be as humane as possible, and it is not nice to think of any animals being killed. But, as you say, it is hypocritical to object to the use of horses for human consumption, and not cows (slaughtered under the same conditions).

I don't think I'd have any real issue with eating horse-meat.

CRS said...

I think that it is exactly as you say: we have an innate feeling that that ethicality of eating an animal is related to how intelligent and sensitive they are. Eating an oyster or snail is not as ethically troubling as eating a mammal.

Since most of us have no objective or empirically based knowledge about the intelligence and sensitivity of different animals, we are persuaded by social consensus. Domesticated animals are anthropomorphised more than any other, and so it feels ethically less acceptable to eat them.

Andrew King said...

The same question occured to me a while back. I speculated that the taboo might go back to the protected status of horses in societies where mounted warriors were top of the social hierarchy.

According to Mr. Google, though, I was wrong and it had more to do with Pope Gregory III prohibiting Christians from eating horseflesh, because horse meat had been consumed in pagan ceremonies.

Alex said...

I'm not even convinced that horses are smarter (or more cognitive or better or whatever) than cows, even though, perhaps, this might be true. I doubt the difference is huge, and I certainly don't think that's the reason at all for this ban.

I think it's simply another example of human bonding, and if we bond easier to it, then the more horrible it seems to kill it. Do we kill cute kittens, or cute but not quite as cute piglets? Bunnies vs. chickens? Horses vs cows? Kangaroos vs. sheep?

And I don't think we simply bond with what is cute, but perhaps more with those who are useful. The closer that usefulness comes to working *with* us rather than *for* us (so, horses traditionally very close to us with riding, ploughing, etc vs. cows that mostly just is "over there eating grass" but sometimes closer when milking) brings about this bonding thing. Dogs are more useful than cats, and I do think, traditionally, dogs have had the advantage over cats even though I think this is changing. Kill the dog for food, or kill the sheep? Dog = useful = interacting with us = strong bonding. Sheep = yummy, but of limited usefulness = not a lot of interaction = poor bonding. Sheep is ok to kill, dogs not so much.

And I think it's interesting that these bonding things are slightly different across different cultures. Cows in certain Indian societies are very different as those cows interact more with society (in a number of ways, and not just for being holy to some), and dogs in certain parts of China.

Short version; I'm not confident that it's intelligence and cognition, but cultural usefulness that leads to stronger bonding.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Makes no difference to me. I think I can afford to chuckle at the silly foreigners in this matter.

As for being a horse-lover, that's not uncommon, though I think they're pretty intimidating.
I like cows. I grew up around cows, horses and sheep. Much fewer pigs.
All edible, though horses aren't often raised for food.

Jean Kazez said...

Suppose there were a religious sect that liked to honor the dead by eating their corpses. You know--just a slice or two at the funeral, perhaps roasted over an open fire. Should we have laws that protect the sensibilities of the rest of us by forbidding this? Sure, why not? It seems no more problematic to me to have laws forbidding the eating of "pet" species like dogs, cats, and horses.

steve oberski said...

@Jean Kazez

And while we're at it, let's have laws prohibiting the practice of ritual cannibalism and the re-enactment of the torture and killing of a human being that takes place in the Catholic churches. That certainly should offend the sensibilities of any rational person.

@Alexander Johannesen

A few times I've wondered aloud in higher end restaurants why it is that you can select your lobster dinner from a tank full of these marine crustaceans but if rabbit is on the menu you never see a pen full of cute bunnies available for your dining pleasure. (Yes. I'll take the really cute one with the floppy ears and adorable button nose).

Evan said...

From a morally skeptical viewpoint, I do think that there's at least one way domestic animals can defensibly be divided into "ok to slaughter" and "not ok to slaughter" that might be relevant here: that is, is the domestication that they underwent (which in most cases, if you're up on the science, was a coevolutionary process, not something planned by humans) one where we use them as working animals or food animals?

Chickens, as a species, have done tremendously well evolutionarily, because they've entered into a "you eat us, just so long as you also propagate us" agreement (chickens are freaking everywhere now!). This is reminiscent of how plants "agree" to let herbivores eat their fruit in "exchange" for seed dispersal.

Dogs, on the other hand, have traditionally been working animals, and as far as I know, horses have been a bit of a cultural mix: sometimes walking larders/transportation, sometimes just working beasts.

Not to make this an is-ought fallacy, but if we're moral skeptics and accept that as communities we need to agree on our own sets of values, then dividing animals into ok to eat or not based on an assessment of their natural history seems as good a way to do it as any. Whether we should then legislate our values... im with you on that Russell; bad idea.

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, we already have broadly-worded laws against cannibalism, and I imagine that the practice you describe would fall afoul of them. Those laws presumably have some justification that is acceptable in a pluralist society.

However, there might well be reason to consider those laws over-inclusive, though, if there are people in our society who want to practice some sort of ritualised, semi-symbolic cannibalism such as you describe. I suppose one rationale to keep the laws broadly worded is sheer simplicity, and I don't underestimate the importance of this.

But all the same ... what if, instead of being caught up in some wider ban that could be justified on safety grounds, or on the basis of reasonable necessity for protecting us from cannibal gangs, or public health grounds, or some such thing, we actually aimed our anti-cannibalism squarely at what you are describing? Are you suggesting that we could justify that law just because most people are culturally averse to the practice? That would usually be considered a very weak reason for a legal prohibition.

I think you need to demonstrate some sort of harm to others, or at least some kind of risk, before you have a good case to ban the token cannibalism in the funerary practices that you describe.

Admittedly, we do all tend to think that high-impact offence is a reason to ban things - so if they did this right in the face of onlookers on a bus, say, who couldn't avoid seeing it, it might be another thing.

But if it's some kind of ceremony that a cult or an ethnic group conducts in private, and it has no health risk or anything of the sort it seems like almost a paradigm example of something that should not be banned. So, it seems like a bad analogy to use to try to justify banning horsemeat just because the majority culture within a culturally pluralist society doesn't like it.

Russell Blackford said...

vangoghpro... there may well be reasons to treat different species of animals differently depending on the inherent cognitive and physiological characteristics of those species (and thus how they differentially experience the treatment). I thought my post made that very point. That is not the point that the post is criticising.

CRS said...

@Steve Oberski

The amount of work involved in turning a live lobster into a meal is not prohibitively impractical for the restaurant industry. It would take a long time to get your meal if the chef started with a live rabbit.

steve oberski said...


Are you suggesting that we could justify that law just because most people are culturally averse to the practice?

For a large part of human history this may not have been the case.

Some anthropologists, such as Tim White, suggest that cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period.


I have no experience with the preparation of either.

Further to your point, lobster has a perceived greater value if kept alive until preparation, not so with rabbits.

March Hare said...

Ban nothing that has no obvious, identifiable harm. This could actually lead to a ban on slaughterhouse practices but is consistent and outlaws the harmful part of the meat industry rather than the harmless eating part.

I'd have a human steak, why not? As long as the person wasn't killed/harmed for it, what's the problem? Mmmm, roadkill.

Svlad Cjelli said...

I've never actually tasted any monkey at all, so a steak might be a bit much for a start. I generally avoid basing an entire meal around something I don't know if I'll enjoy.