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.