Monday, February 25, 2013

A Vegan Perspective on the Horsemeat Scandal

By Mike Dorf

Europe and the UK are currently experiencing a horsemeat scandal, or as one of my fellow vegans put it on her Facebook page, people are horrified to discover that they have been eating dead horse flesh mixed in with their dead cow flesh.  Because I find the prospect of eating dead bits of cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and other animals as morally repugnant as eating dead bits of horses, I'm tempted to say that I find the scandal itself somewhat scandalous, but I'll resist.  I was not always a vegan and back when I ate dead cows I too would have been horrified to discover that I had unwittingly eaten a dead horse.  Moreover, my horror would have been justified.  I was right not to want to eat horses; the problem was that I didn't generalize that revulsion to other animals.

Thus, I was not surprised that a number of animal rights organizations have suggested that the horsemeat scandal provides what is sometimes called a "teachable moment."  The lesson to be taught goes like this: You wouldn't eat a horse; horses and cows (and other animals) have relevantly similar capacities; therefore, you shouldn't eat a cow (or pig or chicken, etc.)  I hope they're right but I suspect that it will take more than just this scandal to teach that lesson.

Some people have tried to reconcile meat eating with outrage at horsemeat eating by changing the subject.  The problem, they say, is simply one of false labeling.  If someone offers crispin apples for sale but labels them as "granny smith" apples, buyers have a legitimate grievance.  Partly that's because granny smith apples are generally more expensive, but even if we assume equal price and quality, purchasers have a right not to be misinformed.

I'll thus happily grant that mislabeling is always at least potentially problematic but I want to ask here why consumers who demand cow meat are upset about eating horse meat.  We can imagine all sorts of mislabeling that might bother particular consumers with idiosyncratic tastes, but here we have a mass revulsion based on something other than quality. Why do people care that they are eating dead horse bits rather than dead cow bits.  What drives the revulsion that makes the mislabeling offensive?

Could it be disgust?  A recent episode of This American Life explored the possibility that cleaned, sliced pig rectum--known as "bung"--could be prepared so that it passes for calamari.  Although I don't eat any animal products to begin with, I find the prospect of eating a pig rectum especially revolting, largely for the same reasons that I'm sure most routine eaters of animals do: It strongly suggests eating pig feces.  Of course, unless you get all your food from a veganic farm, at least indirect ingestion of feces is virtually unavoidable, because of its role as fertilizer.  Still, some processes present it more directly.  Readers first learning from this sentence that much of the fish and seafood they eat was raised on pig feces are probably more grossed out about that than they are by the fact that  the corn or wheat they eat sprang from soil that was fertilized with pig manure.  Eating feces-fed fish is more like eating feces than eating feces-fertilized corn, and eating bung itself is still more like--indeed probably is--eating feces.

If you're still reading (or back from a trip to the bathroom), you'll be happy to learn that I'll now leave the topic of disgust because I don't think that the public revulsion to eating horsemeat is based on the view that horses are more disgusting than cows, pigs, chickens and the other animals people eat.  Indeed, the opposite seems to be more nearly true: People don't want to eat horsemeat because they think of horses as something more like companion animals such as dogs and cats than as "food animals."  They're not grossed out about eating horses; they feel bad for the horses.  Or if they are at all grossed out, they're grossed out because of their moral revulsion, in the same way that moral revulsion at cannibalism or (in our culture) eating dogs, would trigger a disgust response.

So, what distinguishes cats, dogs and horses from "food animals" like chickens, pigs and cows?  I have seen some otherwise-intelligent-sounding people say simply that the latter are food animals, thus mistaking a definitional fiat for a moral argument.  This rejoinder, however, is no more persuasive--indeed, identical in its structure--to the frequently-voiced claim of same-sex marriage opponents that marriage simply means a union of a man and a woman.

To be sure, there is a better--but still fundamentally flawed--argument for distinguishing between the moral duties we owe to cats, dogs and horses from those we owe to chickens, pigs and cows.  The former kinds of animals, it is sometimes said, live among us as family members, while the latter do not, and we are entitled--indeed sometimes obligated--to treat our family members better than we treat strangers.

What's wrong with this line of reasoning?  Well, for one thing, the analogy is imperfect.  A person who has a pet dog may treat that particular dog as a family member but she does not treat all dogs as family members.  So the argument rests on a kind of analogy that says that just as we are entitled (or sometimes obligated) to treat our family members better than we treat strangers, so we can treat all beings that fall into the same class as our family members better than we treat beings that do not fall into that class.  Is that a valid analogy?  Well, it depends.  We treat our fellow citizens better than we treat non-citizens but we think it wrong to treat persons of one race better than those of other races.  Is species more like nationality or race?  I'm inclined to say race, but I won't push the point because I think that the argument under consideration has a still deeper problem.

It's true that I can treat my family members better than I treat strangers for some purposes.  In general, I can do things (and am sometimes obligated to do things) for my children that I can choose not to do for the children of strangers.  I feed, clothe and educate my children but I have no moral obligation (beyond the legal obligation to pay taxes) to do the same for the children of others.  However, in general, I have no right to do harm to others on the ground that they are not part of my family.  So the fact that I can pay college tuition for my children without obligating me to pay college tuition for my neighbors' children is simply irrelevant to the question of whether I can kill and eat my neighbors' children.

Therefore, the analogy to family members--if it holds at all--only shows that we are entitled to do things for those animals we regard as family members that we do not do for other animals.  It does not show that we are entitled to harm those other animals.

What might a non-horse-eating chicken/pig/cow-eater say now?  I think the best he can do is to say that refraining from eating cats, dogs and horses is doing something for those animals because he starts from the presumption that there is nothing wrong with eating animals.  To some extent, even animal activist rhetoric buys into this way of thinking.  For example, PETA boasts that "by switching to a vegetarian diet, you can save more than 100 animals a year from th[e] mysery" of factory farming.

That's a peculiar way of putting things.  You might say that by donating $1000 to Smile Train, you can pay for cleft palate surgery that will save four children from a lifetime of disadvantage, but it would be bizarre to say that someone who refrains from mutilating four children thereby "saves" those children from the disadvantage they would have faced had he in fact mutilated them.  The difference between acts and omissions is central to our most basic notions of moral duties.  And yet, because animal-product eating humans say that animals are entitled to no moral consideration whatsoever, the distinction between acts and omissions dissolves.

Accordingly, I doubt that the horsemeat scandal will much move the animal-product-eating public to reconsider their behavior in general.  But I am optimistic over the long run because I doubt that many people really think that animals are entitled to no moral consideration whatsoever.  People are repulsed by the prospect of eating horsemeat because they visualize the horse that was harmed so that they could eat his flesh and they regret what was done to that horse; they do not think to themselves "what a pity that I didn't have a chance to help this horse by not eating him."

Postscript: I am aware of the following possible rejoinder: All animals are entitled to some moral consideration; that is why we should treat them humanely when we raise them for food and other products.  To my mind, minimal moral consideration is inconsistent with being used as a resource (except perhaps in circumstances of dire necessity), which is a point that people seem to recognize with respect to cats, dogs and horses.  Moreover, even if one were to concede the point in theory, humane treatment is not realized in practice.


Todd NYC said...

There is another dynamic going on, although I can't tell you how dominant it is or isn't.

Cows raised to be slaughtered are maintained in such a way that is suitable for becoming meat. This is the logic of the organic movement: the consumer has some comfort about the manner in which his or her food has been manufactured.

A concern with beef adulterated by horse flesh is that - as something done on the sly for economic reasons - the horses would not likely have been raised in as careful or regulated a manner. Who knows what sort of contaminants or undesirable substances would be in such a product?

A consumer who wants to eat horse should want it to come from a horse farmer who treats his animals with that end in mind. There is much more reason to be concerned that horse meat in adulterated beef was not raised so thoughtfully.

RichMcGil said...

Firs time commenter here!

I find it exceedingly interesting that we accord horses special exemption from our rule of raising animals for food.

I would prefer to stay away from idle speculation, but perhaps these taboos result from a combination of the horses' valuable role as war material and beast of burden and the relatively inefficient way that horses process grasses. It's simply more cost effective to raise a cow to sufficient size for slaughter.

Todd NYC brings up a good point. When one buys organic beef (something I don't do much, as I'm a college student with little money) or any other meat, they do so with the expectation that the animal was raised in a certain way. This horse meat was haphazardly thrown into a package with some beef, and then labeled as such. If the consumer cannot trust that the meat that they are buying is even from the same animal as they intended, how can they reasonably assume the animal was treated with even a modicum of civility.

This does raise troubling questions, and certainly makes one think.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I don't doubt that Todd NYC is right that for some meat eaters, at least part of the concern is what was fed to the animals that they're eating. But my understanding is that the horsemeat "contamination" mostly occurred in the cheaper part of the market for cow meat, where the food chain already contains all sorts of things (e.g., artificial hormones, antibiotics, potential for BSE) that are quite dangerous, and that's apart from the long-term health risks of eating large volumes of animal products. So I think that this concern can only explain a relatively small part of the reaction.

RichMcGil's question--how do particular animals end up in one category rather than another in a particular culture--is an important one, for which there is no single answer. It's the starting point of Melanie Joy's book "Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows."

AF said...

I suspect that many intelligent meat eaters would concede that eating horses or cats or dogs is not morally worse than eating cows or goats or sheep. They would simply point out that it disgusts them, for reasons that are not rationally defensible, and they therefore choose not to do it.

As a fish eater, I was distracted by your comment that "the prospect of eating dead bits of cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and other animals as morally repugnant as eating dead bits of horses." Do you really find eating any animal to be equally morally repugnant -- such that, eg, eating a clam is no more defensible than eating a chimpanzee? How can you defend the view that there is a moral precipice between coral and mushrooms?

Paul Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Scott said...

The lack of an edit function continues to vex me. :)

You moved from an easy consideration (fish) to a more difficult one (clams). Fish have nervous systems that are in all meaningful ways exactly like ours. The most reasonable conclusion from that is that they experience life in a very similar way to us. To the extent this is not true, it should be disproven by those asserting the claim (though the more they are studied, the more obvious it becomes that they are, in fact, like us).

Clams - or any bivalve - ok, that is a harder nut (pun intended). I still choose to err on the side of caution, but I can't claim that clams and cows are morally indistinguishable. Bivalves have a very different nervous system to most other animals. They have no brain or anything even brain-like. They have three ganglial clusters and a central nerve stem. It is reasonable to assume that they do not experience life the way we do and that the burden of proving otherwise is on the person asserting otherwise (in much the same way as with the mushrooms you mentioned).

I do think the "animal kingdom" distinction can result in indefensible positions, but it is a very very very good approximation/substitution for moral quanta and a good line drawing technique that if it is over-inclusive or under-inclusive it will be only true to a small category.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to AF: I agree with Paul both that fish are an easy case and clams are a hard one. I would also add that a commitment to veganism need not (and in my case does not) rest on the proposition that all animals are equal, just that they are all above the threshold for my avoiding unnecessarily harming them: Given the easy non-animal-food alternatives, I don't need to eat them. But in case anyone is keeping score, if I were otherwise out of food and on a lifeboat with a bucket of live clams and a chimpanzee, I'd eat the clams (or perhaps share them with the chimpanzee).

AF said...

Can you humor me and explain why you believe clams to be across the threshold where eating them is unacceptable outside of a lifeboat? It can't simply be due to a presumption that living things "want" to avoid death, as this would apply equally to plants and mushrooms. Is there really a case to be made that clams subjectively experience suffering in a sense that plants and fungi do not?

Paul Scott said...

No, I cannot make that case. I choose not to eat them most as a matter of asthetics, not morality. Mike may feel differently. The Clam's nervous system is certainly more similar to ours than a plant's, but I cannot suggest to you that you are immoral for eating clams.

Fish, otoh, are, as I said before, a very easy case. Also, just because I choose to not eat clams for reasons I cannot fully justify on a "avoid needless harm," does not mean that the vast majority of things that I choose not to eat cannot be justified. The animal kingdom commonly consumed by immoral (or perhaps merely ignorant, willfully or otherwise) person are filled with very easy cases.

Focusing on those cases that are not easy to justify seems somewhat pointless. Unhappy with the line-drawing at "Animal Kingdom?" Fine, draw your line at "has a brain and central nervous system." I suspect, since you "eat fish" - that is not really a line in which you are interested either.

If I am mistaken, please say so and if after an hour spent with google researching what fishing and fish farming does to both the planet, the fish as species and the fish as individuals you cannot come up with sufficient reasons to stop consuming dead animal parts I'll be glad to direct you to some useful resources.

AF said...


I appreciate your thoughtfulness and respect your choices. I do think a defensible line can be drawn between fish and mammmals based on their lack of a neocortex (see the work of James Rose). I agree, however, that if you believe in a strong principle that it is morally wrong to eat any animal that might feel pain in any plausible sense, one should avoid eating fish. I don't happen to believe in that principle. My rule against eating animals besides fish (and shellfish) is a practical line that I draw to reduce (not eliminate) the animal pain that I contribute to.

What's your view on using animal-tested medicines or medical devices in non-life-threatening situations (eg, minor surgery)? What about elective medical procedures? I say this not to badger, but to probe what is meant by avoiding "unnecessary" animal suffering.

Paul Scott said...

I oppose most animal testing. I oppose the entire system by which animals are subjected to testing. I do not oppose the use of medicines or devices that went through that system.

The testing approval process fails to take into consideration the moral value of the animal subject. I believe if it did, almost no animal testing would take place. This would result in a diminished understanding of animals, but much in the same way that our prohibition of all non-consensual human testing does as well.

I do not, as a rule, value non-human animals over human ones. In fact, I am spiciest in that regard favoring humans. So, if the animal testing approval process considered the value of the animal subjects properly, then I can see how some non-consensual testing would none-the-less be permitted. It would, however, be very rare once you combined a proper weighing of the value of the animal as an individual against the need for the experiment. Almost all animal testing we do today is unnecessary and is largely directed at reducing human risk by very small amounts.

As to the medicines and devices that come out of our process, I don't object to them because no such medicines or devices exist in contrast. The best way to explain this is going back to diet. I don't eat animals because doing so is completely unnecessary. Put me in a long-term situation where animals are my only food choice and I will eat them. I would do the same to humans. Put me in a situation where my choices are only animals or humans and I will kill and eat the animals. Our government makes it impossible for any medicines or medical devices to exist without the use of animals. Given the lack of reasonable alternatives, no I do not object to their use.

As an aside on fish, btw, Rose's work is not particularly good. His descriptions are fine, but his conclusions are exceptionally weak. He essentially points to a minor structural difference in the brains of fish. The nervous system of fish, which other research has established and Rose himself accepts, is effectively identical. There is a lot (unfortunately) of research establishing both the composition of the overall nervous system and the reaction to stimuli that make it clear that fish react to things that would cause us pain in much the same way we react to them. So their brains are (slightly) different. Their are countless examples in nature of similar or same functions being performed by different anatomy.

Unfortunately, there will be a lot more testing of how and why fish feel pain. I hope you and others like you will pay attention to the research as it develops and reconsider your position.

Jeff G. said...

Fish, otoh, are, as I said before, a very easy case. Also, just because I choose to not eat clams for reasons I cannot fully justify on a "avoid needless harm," does not mean that the vast majority of things that I choose not to eat cannot be justified. The animal kingdom commonly consumed by immoral (or perhaps merely ignorant, willfully or otherwise) person are filled with very easy cases.blade & soul gold | Buy Runescape Gold | bns gold

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where animals are my only food choice and I will eat them. I would do the same to humans. Put me in a situation where my choices are only animals or humans and I will kill and eat the animals. Our government makes it impossible for any medicines or medical devices to exist without the use of animals. Given the lack of reasonable alternatives, no I do not object to their use.

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