Sometimes you just have to write…
I’ve been thinking about this horsemeat scandal that’s been filling the news for the last week or so. It’s interesting to see just how interconnected the economies of European countries are. The scandal has spread from country to country as investigators, as well as the press, try to trace how horsemeat took the place of beef in many ready-made meals across Europe.
To me, the most fascinating part is the public’s reaction to the idea of horsemeat.
But before I go into my ethical questions, I should probably explain my background, or lack of a background, with horses and other animals.
As a child, I never went horseback riding – except for the occasional pony ride at a fair – because the lessons were so expensive. My mother didn’t want me or my sisters to get attached to something my parents would be unwilling or unable to support. So, along with skiing, it was forbidden. Then and now I see horses as beautiful animals, but have little direct experience with them.
Unlike the people who have been shocked and horrified recently to discover that they’ve eaten horsemeat, I have knowingly eaten horsemeat. Horsemeat is regularly in the supermarket here in the Netherlands, though the only form I’ve noticed is in cold cuts section. The smoked horsemeat is really quite tasty, with a strong, dark flavor, and less fat than smoked pork cold cuts.
As for other animals, we had a cat when I was very small, and then later a couple of dogs: Airedales. I had a cat for a while in college, and then another one for the two years I was in the Peace Corps. I haven’t owned any pets except for fish since the late 1980’s because I developed an allergy to them.
So why are people getting so upset about this? That’s a disingenuous question: they feel attached to horses, of course, the same way they feel attached to dogs or cats. It’s the same impulse that upsets people about people in China eating dog meat; it’s like eating a family member, a form of cannibalism.
But why is that so? Why are we emotionally attached to dogs, cats and horses, but not to pigs or cows or sheep? Dogs and cats have soft fur, which we love to touch. So do horses, but so do cows and sheep, yet we don’t get so attached to them. We like calves, lambs and piglets: they’re cute, but once they’re grown, and sometimes when they’re still young, we eat them. Some people keep pigs as pets; they aren’t soft and furry, but they are full of personality like dogs. I’ve never heard of anyone keeping a grown cow or sheep as a pet. Cows have a strong smell, which can put us off, I think, but so do dogs, and, for that matter, so do horses. Yet we’re happy to spend time with horses or dogs, but not cows. Dogs and cats can be housetrained, but I understand that pigs can too. And horses and cows can’t.
So where do we draw the lines between the categories? Why should horses be immune to human consumption and not cows or pigs? For that matter, why not dogs or cats? You might answer that horses, dogs and cats are more intelligent that cows or pigs. An admittedly brief internet search shows that it’s very difficult to assess the level of intelligence of different species. In any case, differentiating on the basis of intelligence leads to the question of where you draw the line: Above x level of intelligence, it’s not okay to eat; below x and it’s okay? Given the difficulting in assessing their intelligence, how would we decide where x was? And if we base our decision on intelligence, why are we so averse to eating insects?
Or is it a judgment based on our own views of beauty and the enjoyment the animals give us? We see horses as beautiful. We can interact with them in an enjoyable way, as we can with dogs and cats. So perhaps the line should be between “animals that are beautiful and that we can interact with in an enjoyable way” and all other animals, which are okay to eat. Again, definitions become a problem here: what is “beautiful” and what is “enjoyable” enough to keep an animal in the not-to-be-eaten list?
When I visited China, I was surprised to see people walking pet dogs on the street. Yet, in some places, dogmeat was available for sale. I can’t say, though, whether the same people who walked the dogs would also eat dogmeat. Maybe once they get a pet dog, they shift dogmeat to the “don’t eat” category. (I may or may not have eaten dogmeat. In China we chose restaurants randomly and generally ordered randomly from the menu, and there was one time we couldn’t identify what kind of meat we were eating. It didn’t occur to us until later that it might have been dog. Was I upset about this? No.)
Perhaps it would be more ethically consistent to draw the line between “animals I know” and “animals I don’t know.” Then my rule would be “I won’t eat my dog, but I will eat other dogs I don’t know.” Judging by various friends of mine who own dogs, that doesn’t work either. People who own dogs tend to generalize that fondness and would protest that they love all dogs.
A principled vegetarian – one who doesn’t eat meat because he thinks it’s wrong, not just for health reasons – is actually the most consistent thinker about this ethical question: we are animals, and we should not eat animals. This strikes me as far more defendable than any other rather arbitrarily-drawn line through the animal kingdom.
I recognize that the people who were responsible for horsemeat replacing beef in those ready-meals either made a mistake or perpetuated a fraud, and they should be punished and the food labeling corrected. They are required to report what is in the food they sell. But the bigger question about the ethics of eating horse is less clear-cut. What it comes down to is: aren’t we being hypocrites to get all outraged over eating horsemeat or dogmeat when we eat pork and beef all the time? What’s really the difference?