They Eat Horses, Don’t They?

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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  1. Hey Mike,

    I have to say, I don’t entirely agree with you on most points.

    Firstly, while the first argument you speak of is very weak. Legalizing certain (but not all) drugs and prostitution would not be morally wrong. There are drugs which are currently not legal that are much less harmful than those which are legal (alcohol and nicotine are prime examples). Prostitution also has nothing inherently wrong with it. However, we need to be careful with how we define prostitution. I’d say it has to be an job which is freely chosen by the woman, in which her rights are respected and protected.

    I do agree though that killing horses for food just to create jobs is a crappy reason. There is no meat shortage to think of, so the jobs would be redundant from the start.

    I agree with your second point, regarding killing horses to spare their suffering. But your analogy with the children is not as strong. While a child is certainly a significant strain on a family’s finances, in (hopefully) all families, the child will have an important role. Therefore, there will be other things which should be gotten rid of before kids. That said, people should get rid of other things before they abandon their horses.

    On to your next point. I see nothing wrong with using the meat from the slaughtered horses for food, and there is no inherent problem with using meat from other pets for food. They will have sentimental value, but otherwise there is nothing to distinguish horses or any other pets from other animals that are used for meat.

    I agree with your next point that raising horses with the intention of getting meat from them will weaken the mercy killing argument and strengthen the economic argument. But again, I think that it would only create a redundant industry. We know it is redundant because if it was necessary, then it would be thriving. Instead of creating jobs in the “horse meat” industry, I’d see it much more favourable to invest money and create more jobs in science and technology industries, not to mention philosophy departments (but that’s just me being biased).

    Nextly, I am afraid that sentimental reasons are the strongest reason so far of what you wrote against eating horses.

    I like the argument from Kant, what’s the source?

  2. You should read the GAO’s report on this:

    Almost 140,000 horses per year are exported to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. Long distance transport to sub-standard facilities that are not governed by humane slaughter standards is a net harm on these horses. Banning domestic horse slaughter had the UNintended effect of increasing harm to US horses.

    Many horse owners are not affluent, and during tough economic times they cannot afford the $1500 or more per year that it can cost to supply food for a horse. Without recourse, they end up neglecting these horses. Perhaps federal funds should be used to support these horses, but please recognize that it would cost 1000x as much to support the horses as to inspect them for slaughter: the inspection budget was a little over $200,000 per year, while the minimum board on 140,000 horses would be about $210 million.

    Finally, I can understand arguments against animal cruelty that are broadly inclusive, but none of your “horses are special” arguments strike me as particularly strong. Cows have also served us well, as have pigs and chickens. Perhaps it is time to end the practice of animal servitude.

  3. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I agree with Joshua that it’s time to end the practice of animal servitude.

    However, Kant’s idea that there is a relation between treating animals well and treating people well does not stand up. The Nazis were very concerned about animal welfare.

  4. Major Shake

    Kant has a bit on animals in The Metaphysics of Morals, part II, paras 16 and 17.

    True-the drug and prostitution part of argument is weak and, actually, intentionally so. When people push, for example, for killing horses to create jobs and proponents dismiss any concerns about it as mere sentiment, it would seem that their approach should also allow the legal sale of drugs and legalizing prostitution as a business-yet these things tend to be vehemently opposed by the same folks who voted in favor of funding the inspection of meat. I’m fine with drug legalization, although my drug use is limited to aspirin (running injuries) and a hard cider or lemonade once a week while playing D&D or CoC. I suppose that my badly made point is that if we can grind up horses as meat to create jobs, then we should surely be allowed to sell pot to adults.

    On the one hand, I agree that it does seem that meat is meat. On the other hand, I think that part of what defines a person ethically is what s/he is willing to regard as food and under what conditions. I’m a sentimentalist, so I would not eat my dog even if I was starving. However, I am probably a hypocrite of sorts because I will eat cow, deer, buffalo, fish and pork.

    True-it is probably mainly a matter of how one feels about horses. This probably also extends to a larger view of animals-namely, should we see them as meat on the hoof (paw, fin, or foot)or something more?


  5. Joshua,

    True-from a practical standpoint it is far cheaper and perhaps more humane to simply kill the horses here rather than ship them to Mexico or Canada to be processed. However, there is still the issue as to whether we should be sending the horses to slaughter at all. To use an analogy, it might be preferable for me to decapitate someone quickly than to chop them up slowly. However, there is still the question of whether I should be killing the person at all.

    Quite right-animals are costly to care for, but cheap to inspect (and kill). These economic arguments do, of course, have weight. If the suffering of an animal is less when we simply kill it and we cannot afford (or are unwilling to afford) the resources to keep it alive under good conditions, then perhaps its death would be morally preferable. The same sort of argument can (and has) been used in the case of euthanasia: if old Uncle Ted is in a rough state and we cannot afford to pay the hospital bills, pulling the plug might be the right thing to do.

    I would agree that we need to treat animals better. When I teach ethics, I do a section on equality and oppression. I address the usually topics (racism and sexism, etc) and also include a section on animals. I point out to my students that the arguments people use to justify treating animals badly are the same sorts that people used (and use) to treat other people badly. I also point out that while most students see the idea of animal oppression as nonsense, the same view was held in regards to various types of people.

  6. s.wallerstein,

    To defend Kant, I would say that treating animals well is a contributory cause to treating humans well, but not a sufficient cause. There are people who rather like animals, but are not too keen on people. However, in general a person who is kind to animals will tend to learn kindness. Likewise, someone who is cruel to them will tend towards cruelty (serial killers often start out with animals, to use an extreme example).

  7. Mike:

    In my experience, it’s not true that people who are cruel to animals will tend to be cruel to people, as you claim above.

    It may happen that people who are cruel to animals are also cruel to people, but it’s not always the case.

    So you only show that some people who are cruel to animals are also cruel to people.

    It may also occur that, as was my case, that someone first learns to be concerned about people and then extends his or her concern to animals.
    I was relatively unconcerned about both people and animals as a youth, then matured into becoming concerned about other people and finally, became concerned about all sentient bengs.

  8. “I was relatively unconcerned about both people and animals as a youth, then matured into becoming concerned about other people and finally, became concerned about all sentient beings.”

    But are animals sentient beings?

  9. The trouble with using the bans on recreational drugs and prostitution as analogies is that these are almost paradigm examples of laws that it is widely thought (including by me) should be repealed. If the best argument against repealing laws against slaughter of horses for food were that it is analogous to repealing laws against recreational drug use and prostitution … well, for many of us this actually becomes an argument in favour of going ahead and repealing laws against alaughter of horses for meat.

    (I doubt that the analogies are any good anyway. Presumably the modern rationales for laws against prostitution and recreational drug use are based on a thought that it is okay for the state to enact paternalistic laws to protect citizens from their own bad choices, especially if they are psychologically vulberable in some way when they make those choices. These laws are meant to protect the civil interests of citizens, albeit from their own decisions. That is not going to be the rationale for banning the slaughter of horses for meat.)

  10. Mike,

    Thanks for the reply to my comment!

    Firstly, there is nothing wrong with selling pot to adults. It’s less harmful than cigarettes and at most as harmful as alcohol (in that, if someone drives after smoking weed they are as much of a danger as someone who drives after drinking).

    I agree that part of what defines a person ethically is what they do for food. However I think what is much more important is how the food is acquired, and not what the food is. There is a problem with the cruelty of most animal slaughter for meat. If horses were to suffer in order to get onto my plate, I’d never eat a horse. However, if a horse was treated with dignity, killed in a non-cruel way, and had whatever might be considered as a decent life by a horse, then I don’t see why it shouldn’t end up on someone’s plate. It’s only meat.

    I think it is perfectly alright to see animals as more than just meat. In fact, it’s what we morally should do. It’s easy to see that animals suffer in similar ways to us, therefore it’s obvious to me at least, that we are morally obliged to try to eliminate as much suffering as possible from them. I do believe however that it is possible to breed animals in ways which are morally okay, and kill them in that way as well.

  11. Major Shake,

    I do accept that people have a right of “self abuse” in the sense that there is a liberty to do things that can be damaging to one’s body and mind. Such things are often unwise, but that is another matter. So, for example, I accept that I should have the liberty to run races, though I occasionally suffer damage. Likewise, if an adult wants to inhale smoke from burning plant material, I’m fine with that-provided she is not flying a plane, etc.

    True-the treatment of the animal beforehand is quite relevant. In my own case, I will catch a fish and eat it or event hunt an animal. But I gave up veal over 20 years ago because of the suffering involved in creating that meat.

    Since I grew up hunting and fishing, I have an inclination towards accepting killing animals-provided that they are treated properly. Of course, this might seem to be a bit of a problem-it might be countered that killing an animal for food is (almost) always bad.

  12. Mike,

    I think we’re in agreement there. As strongly as I support legalizing certain plants for smoking, it would need to be done responsibly.

    That’s fair. I’m yet to ever hear about veal being grown responsibly.

    I don’t think anyone can say that killing an animal for food is even almost always bad. I think that it wouldn’t be difficult to find many cases in which it is not morally wrong, and to weaken that argument. The strongest opposition, in my opinion, would be to argue that eating meat is not necessary for humans to maintain a healthy diet.

  13. Jim,

    I am divided on this. As a matter of moral consistency, if I am against killing horses for food on X grounds, then I must also be against killing any animal (that meets X grounds) for food. I can, of course, justify eating certain animals by arguing for morally relevant differences between them. For example, if I take having certain cognitive and emotional traits as the main factors, then I could contend that critters that do not make the cut can be made into cuts. To use a common example, there are many “vegetarians” who eat fish, although they are clearly not vegetables (the fish, not the vegetarians). If I take this line, then this would seem to allow that certain humans could be served up for lunch, though. There is also the challenge of justifying eating X (fish) and not Y (chihuahuas).

    If I go with the idea that it is the killing that is wrong, then this would seem to require me to abandon killing plants as well. After all, they are alive. One could, I suppose, subsist on food that does not require death-eating fruits and synthetics, perhaps.

  14. Major Shake,

    True-meat is actually a health impediment. One way to reduce the risk of certain cancers and various other nasty health problems is to stop eating meat (most especially red meat) or at least cut way back. In my own case, I rather like meat-but I have cut back partially on moral grounds and mainly on health grounds.

  15. Jim,

    Human flesh would, on one view, just be one more form of meat. And, to steal a phrase, meat is meat. How it is acquired would, one would probably argue, be the more important factor. So, if a dying person volunteered to be eaten to save his friends (the classic plane crash example) this would be morally better (perhaps) than factory farming a chicken or torturing a goose to make pate.

    Of course, how we regard beings does seem to have moral significance. This does not, however, exclude respectful eating-see, for example, Herodotus’ tale of the Greeks, etc. in the court of Darius regarding the disposal of the dead.

    In the case of horses and dogs, I would say that they are such that they deserve better than being slaughtered for meat (that is, being treated as mere means to filling human bellies). So, my reasoning is not so much “this dog and that horse were my friends so we should not eat them” but rather “these examples show that dogs and horses are beings that are worthy of being treated better than belly filling meat.” I use comparable arguments against slaughtering humans for food: we are such that we are entitled to better treatment* and I know this because of the people I know.

    *Some exceptions may apply.

  16. Jim,

    Interestingly enough, I do hold that many wild animals also have qualities that give them a moral status that would make it wrong to mistreat them. Dogs are essentially tamed wolves and having read about folks who have studied wolves in the wild, I would be inclined to accept that they have the same basic status as dogs (just far worse PR against them). As Kant said: “The more we come in contact with animals and observe their behavior, the more we love them, for we see how great is their care for their young. It is then difficult for us to be cruel in thought even to a wolf.”

    I wouldn’t hunt a wolf for food, unless the other option was my own death. Even then, I would feel rather bad about it. Of course, I’m the sort of person who carries lizards and spiders outside rather than killing them. In short, I think that living creatures should be left unharmed, unless that harm is suitably warranted. I have no moral opposition to necessary violence (I have fought twice in self defense, but fortunately did not have to seriously hurt the other people).

    I’ve never had a pig as a pet, but I have interacted with them (as did my golden retriever and other dogs-they seemed to eventually accept the pig as an honorary dog). That did make me feel bad about bacon (although the pig itself was fond of bacon).

  17. Jim,

    My general rule is that if something tries to kill me, I will try to kill it right back. That has served me well over the years. I also will also kill things that try to burrow into my skin, drink my blood, or cause disease. Critters that just wander in and pose no threat generally get a free trip back outside.

    Nice anecdote. 🙂

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