Gag: Foie Gras and Horse Meat
December 3, 2011 3 Comments
Early last week Congress voted to lift the ban on horse slaughter in the United States. [http://www.theatlanticwire.com/business/2011/11/congress-lifts-horse-butchering-ban-good-horses/45567/] The act, buried in a much larger bill, has surely sent a gagillion horse-crazy people into deep depression. But the message I’m getting from many in the animal welfare world is that this decision was a good one for domestic horses. Turns out the most common destination for U. S. horses deemed ready for slaughter was Mexico, where slaughterhouse regulation is comparatively weak. Horses killed in the United States, I’m told, will assuredly be better off than if they’d been killed in Mexico. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, partially in deference to this logic, supported the measure.
This justification makes sense–at least as it’s framed. But what I find especially disturbing is the frame. Think about it: we’re up in arms over where an animal should be slaughtered rather than thinking seriously about whether or not we should be slaughtering it at all. Such an ethical by-pass is a stark reminder of how, in a food world defined by growing inquisitiveness, our thinking about the place of animals in our diet remains deeply impoverished. How can it be that, in a culinary culture that’s never been more aggressive about investigating food, we refuse to even remotely entertain the prospect that eating a horse might be a tragedy?
To expand the frame a bit, consider a duck. A significant number of ethically concerned consumers deem foie gras nothing short of a diabolical slice of suffering. Famous chefs have sworn off the stuff, and I wish I had a dime for every omnivore I know who passionately opposes foie gras on ethical grounds. What’s interesting is that this opinion prevails despite humanity’s relatively remote relationship with the duck–we’ve never worked or lived closely with these creatures. Their history is hardly intertwined with ours. Still, we’re vehement about protecting their livers. This position, of course, stands in stark contrast to the collective yawn we just let out upon hearing that the horse–an animal with whom we’ve plowed fields, colonized continents, waged war, and (with thankful rarity) buggered [[http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=96426983]]–may be coming to meat counter near you.
If duck liver is verboten but horse meat is in, we have some explaining to do. The most common response to this disparity will be that it’s the the way an animal is raised that matters when it comes to eating ethically. Ducks suffer when tubes are shoved in their throats and their livers are fattened; horses, however, can (so we’re told) lead a good life and die in peace in the comfort of a loving abattoir. You know this drill. But such an argument only perpetuates a mentality that ensures we’ll never make progress when it comes to improving the lives of animals. In sum, to eat horse meat (or condone it) while deeming foie gras ethically unsound is to perpetuate what you clearly disdain: the poor treatment of animals. Let me try and explain why.
Most opponents of foie gras come to their position after hearing about or seeing videos of ducks being force-fed mush through a tube jammed into their gullets. Even if it’s true that ducks lack a gag reflex, these searing images disgust us. It’s worthing thinking about why. Is it because we believe an animal deserves equal moral consideration and, as a result, should not be force fed so humans can pay $40 a plate to eat their internal organs? No, for many of us, this is not the problem. After all, many (most?) people who won’t eat foie gras are probably just fine eating the duck itself. Instead, our opposition, however unlikely, arises from the fact that humans can gag. Every one of us has choked on something in our lives and we know that its a crappy feeling. Can you imagine your whole life with a tube stuck in your throat? Yes, we can, and it’s for this very reason that we can also directly empathize with ducks in confinement and, no matter how distant our shared past, no matter how foreign we are to them, declare force-feeding, and hence its products, abhorrently inhumane.
Now take the horse. Because we know horses as well as we do, because they’ve been integral to so much of human history, we also know that they’re capable of living exceedingly happy lives. Our bond with these animals has been enduring; our past with them tight. Why is it then that most of us are able to discuss their slaughter–even PETA!–as if where the most natural act in the world? How is it that even the most openly welfare minded of consumers can casually subjugate the ethics of slaughter to the logistics of location? I’d say the answer has to do with empathy. That is, whereas we can empathize with having a tube shoved into our throats, most of us cannot (thankfully) even remotely empathize with being shunted off to a slaughterhouse.This prospect is quite fortunately beyond the realm of even the more sordid of our imaginations. We literally cannot relate to such a scenario.
Which brings me to the upshot. Because we cannot imagine what it would be like for ourselves to be culled and killed, we have the luxury of fabricating what the experience is like for the animal we want to eat. Herein lies the heart of the distinction between the hatred of foie gras and acceptance of horse meat. Our actual inability to empathize with what an animal endures when it’s slaughtered allows us to project whatever we want to project upon that inherently tragic moment. They lived a good life. They didn’t know what was coming. Temple Grandin designed the slaughterhouse. They sacrificed their lives for us. And so on. We cannot make the same rationalizations for ducks raised for foie gras for a very simple reason: we would know, as a result of our own experience, that any positive projection we came up with would be a distortion of reality. We would know this because, alas, we gag.
The deeper value of the “empathy test” is that it reiterates the most essential similarity humans share with animals: sentience. Humans, just like animals, experience pleasure and pain. Our empathy provides the bridge between our sentience and theirs. The fact that so many consumers reject foie gras because of the painful manner in which ducks are fed, and the fact that the way they are fed is a phenomenon to which we can directly relate, is ipso facto proof that many consumers already recognize the moral baseline of sentience. Anyone who thinks that it’s possible to eschew liver but eat horse–or any animal product, for that matter–is choking on self-deception.