Horse Meat Ethics

In case you didn’t know, slaughtering horses for human consumption is legal in Canada (where I live), but illegal in the U.S. That’s not to say that eating horses is common in Canada. Far from it. But it is apparently legal, here, though some people would like to see that change.

See this story by Mark Schatzker, for the Globe & Mail: Why you should eat horsemeat: It’s delicious

Herewith, three facts about horses: 1) They’re cute. 2) They’re edible. 3) You probably haven’t eaten any lately because of fact No. 1.

If horsemeat is something you’re interested in trying, you may want to do it soon. Anti-horsemeat activists would like to put an end to it. Last October, activists descended on a Vancouver butcher shop, a Toronto restaurant and an Alberta abattoir demanding that the practice of killing horses and eating their meat be stopped. Since then, horsemeat has been disappearing from menus, and diners are becoming wary of this now-controversial meat. And a private member’s bill that would effectively shut down the slaughtering of horses for human consumption was tabled in Parliament in June….

The most likely explanation for the taboo (strong in the U.S., weaker in Canada, non-existent in many other parts of the world) against eating horse is that, well, horses are beautiful. But that’s a pretty weak reason, ethically speaking. And it’s weaker still as a reason to have a law against eating them. I don’t see any ethical difference between horses and cows. Although I appreciate horses aesthetically — I’ve owned and ridden them, and am generally fond of them — that doesn’t really count as a good reason for me to criticize other people for eating them.

FYI, here is the Wikipedia entry for horse meat.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, ethics, law, meat. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Horse Meat Ethics

  1. Eric says:

    We have 3 horses at home, but I tried horse meat nonetheless (I live in Germany). It’s not really common, so you have to look a bit harder, but there are places that sell horse meat. WAsn’t too bad…

  2. Paulette says:

    I expect the objections are totally emotional as you state. I know personally I am unlikely to eat horse meat for exactly that reason. However, I have been known to eat venison, and deer are decidedly pretty animals as well. Calfs are pretty cute too, and I do eat veal. So maybe its the association angle. I know that is what motivated my Mother to not eat horse meat – her very fond memories of her pony as a Saskatchewan farm girl.
    Personal preferences aside, I can see no reason to forbid (much less legislate!!) others from consuming a perfectly legitimate & nutritious source of protein. My preferences do not shut down others food choices.
    There are many food items that are issues (with sounder reasons such as severe allergies to peanut for example) and these are not legislated out of our food supply. Rather safety measures & practices to guard the susceptible individual against exposure are instead developed.
    Seems a silly thing to have gone as far as it has.

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  4. lian verhoef says:

    I lived for five years in the Flanders of Belgium and horse meat is common over there, there are flemish villages known for their exelent horsemeat products! I have eaten it and I have served it serveral times in my bistro, eventhough horse meat is a very interesiting meat to work with, the reactions are sometimes simular as for seal meat, too cute too eat! Still I am lucky with a curious clientele who is willing to eat and try!
    I find it ridiculous to make horse meat iligal. Better a good healty horse than a sick battery chicken or mass farmed porc!

  5. northernsong says:

    “The most likely explanation for the taboo (strong in the U.S., weaker in Canada, non-existent in many other parts of the world) against eating horse is that, well, horses are beautiful. But that’s a pretty weak reason, ethically speaking.”

    Actually, the reason for the taboo is that in settler colonial states, horses tend to be rare and valuable – you don’t eat them for the same reason you don’t burn your furniture to keep warm (unless you’re starving, that is). And that’s a pretty strong reason, “ethically speaking” – any society that doesn’t create taboos against destroying things of integral value will not last very long.

    As for whether that has any bearing on whether we should eat horse meat now – of course it doesn’t. The relevant question now is can you justify the suffering of a sentient being on the basis of a personal subjective pleasure, which you could do without. And you can’t. So you can’t eat horse meat, but you can’t eat beef either, or fish (given what we now know about how fish experience pain).

    • Northernsong:

      Thanks for that. It’s an interesting theory about the origins of the horse-meat taboo, though I have my doubts. Are horses so much more plentiful (and hence lacking in value) in, say, the parts of Europe that eat horse meat? But still, that may be part of the explanation — though I think we need more than that to explain the persistence of the taboo in an affluent society.

      As for the question of moral justification: You’re assuming that the suffering of sentient things is intrinsically bad. That’s not an uncommon point of view, but neither is it obviously true.

      • Carl says:

        Several sources:

        1. An old Anglo-Saxon taboo against eating horse meat.
        2. Against the approved meat for Jews (not a ruminant and not a split hoof)
        3. Consuming horse meat was part of religious rituals of Norse pagans (Odin worship etc.) and banned by the Pope as a step to prevent “christians” from continuing pagan practices.

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  7. I cannot think of eating horsemeat, the idea almost makes me sick to my stomach. I have talked to people in the past who have eaten horse maeat- some liked it and some did not. It is against my internal nature to do so. If it was just me and a horse and I had to kill and eat the horse to live, I would starve to death – the same way I would if my life depended on eating human to live. I am sure God would understand. I hope i will never have to find out.

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