The Empathy Test: Why Nobody Cares About Horse Slaughter

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When Congress lifted a ban on slaughtering horses in the U.S. last week even PETA kept quiet. Here's one possible explanation.

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Early last week Congress voted to lift the ban on horse slaughter in the United States. The act has surely sent legions of horse lovers into deep depression. But the message I'm hearing from many advocates in the animal welfare world is that this decision will benefit domestic horses.

As it turns out, the most common destination for U.S. horses deemed ready for slaughter was Mexico, where slaughterhouse regulation is 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 (PETA), partially in deference to this logic, agrees. And as the matter is now framed, so do I.

But what I find especially disturbing is the frame. As a culture that's becoming increasingly serious about the ethics of eating, why are we more concerned with discussing where an animal should be slaughtered than whether it should be slaughtered at all? Such an ethical bypass is a stark reminder of how impoverished our thinking about the place of animals in our diet remains. The goal of this essay is thus not so much to elaborate on Congress' decision per se, but to expand the framework in which it was made and, in turn, see how the picture changes.

We can empathize with having a tube shoved into our throats, but we cannot even remotely empathize with being shunted off to a slaughterhouse.

To do so, we might consider ducks. 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 opposes foie gras on ethical grounds. This opinion prevails despite humanity's remote relationship with the duck -- we've never worked or lived closely with these creatures, nor do we care for them as companion animals. Nonetheless, we're somehow vehement about protecting one of their internal organs.

This position stands in obvious contrast to the collective yawn we just let out upon hearing the big news that the domestically-slaughtered horse -- an animal with whom we've plowed fields, colonized continents, waged war, rode to victory, and (with thankful rarity) buggered --may be coming to a meat counter near you.

So, the question: Why do so many people consider duck liver bad but horse meat OK? The most common response to this disparity will likely be that it's the the way an animal is raised that matters when it comes to the ethical consumption of animal products. Ducks suffer when tubes are shoved down their throats to swell their livers, but horses can lead a good life and die peacefully in an abattoir. This argument is flawed.

The duck/horse dichotomy ultimately centers on the matter of empathy. 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 down their gullets. Even if it's true that ducks lack a gag reflex, these images disgust us. They disgust us, I would contend, for the basic reason that humans can imagine what it's like to have something shoved down throats. Every one of us has choked on something in our lives and we know that it's a crappy feeling. Can you imagine your whole life choking on a tube? We can, and it's for this very reason that we empathize with ducks raised for foie gras and, no matter how distant our shared past, declare the process abhorrently inhumane.

Now the horse. We know that horses are capable of living exceedingly happy lives. Our bond with these animals has been enduring; our past with them tight. We've intimately witnessed their pain and pleasure, and understood it through the lens of our own experience of pain and pleasure. Why is it, then, that most of us -- even staunch welfare advocates -- are able to discuss their slaughter as if were 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?

Again, the answer hinges on empathy. Whereas we can empathize with having a tube shoved into our throats, most of us cannot even remotely empathize with being shunted off to a slaughterhouse. This prospect is quite fortunately beyond the realm of our most sordid imaginations. As a result, we have the luxury of fabricating what the experience of slaughter is like for the animal we want to eat. We can, in essence, make up what the experience of death is like for a horse.

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 is 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. They sacrificed their lives for us. We cannot, by contrast, make the same rationalizations for ducks raised for foie gras becasue we would know, as a direct result of our own experience, that any positive projection we came up with would be a ridiculous distortion of reality. We would know this, again, because we gag.

The "empathy test" thus does more than expose the arbitrariness of our different perspectives on foie gras and horse meat. It does something positive as well. Empathy 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 automatic proof that many consumers already recognize the moral baseline of sentience. Thus anyone who thinks that it's possible to eschew liver but eat horse -- or any animal product, for that matter -- is simply choking on self-deception.

Image: Creative Commons.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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