Relativism at the heart of Reason

Arguments from cultural relativism sometimes strike me as acts of desperation: Unable to argue against a position, one argues that taking any position is irresponsible because others disagree with it. From a certain context-free perspective everything can appear to be arbitrary and unjustifiable. Jacob Sullum exploits this sort of argument in a column in Reason. His dudgeon is raised by the passage in the House of H.R. 503, a bill to “amend the Horse Protection Act to prohibit. . . the slaughter of Horses for human consumption and other purposes.”

>Horses are nice. Killing them for food is mean. This is the gist of the argument for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

Or so claims Sullum.

>Congress is on the verge of passing a law aimed at stopping Americans from catering to foreigners’ taste for horse meat. I generally avoid the phrase cultural imperialism, since it’s often used by people who object to the voluntary consumption of American products by non-Americans. But when Americans want to forcibly impose their culinary preferences on people in other countries, it fits pretty well.

Avoiding the phrase “cultural imperialism” seems to have resulted in not understanding it. If not providing for another culture’s culinary preferences is somehow “forcibly imposing culinary preference on people in other countries,” then the notion of “cultural imperialism” seems to collapse into sheer meaninglessness.

>Perhaps they can enlighten me as well: What is the legally relevant distinction between a horse and a cow? Is it aesthetic? Lambs are awfully cute. Is the issue intelligence? Pigs are pretty smart.

This is a very good question that Sullum has almost stumbled upon. In this case, however, the legally significant distinction is that one species has been legally designated as sellable for food for human consumption and the other has not in many States (I believe this to be true. The sale of horse meat was made legal during WWII in some states and made illegal again after the war. Texas and California I believe have made the sale of horse meat illegal). Presumably Sullum would disagree that this distinction is justified, but the question in his text needs to be answered first by some acquaintance with the relevant laws concerning animals. And whether Sullum agrees or not our legal codes regularly distinguish between species and the protections that they are afforded: For example, animals used for agricultural purposes are explicitly excluded from most anti-cruelty legislation.

What Sullum needs to ask is what is the “morally significant distinction” between a horse and a cow? But, if we ask that, we might discover that the “lever” of arbitrariness does not expand the exclusions from animal protection laws, but works in the other direction. If Sullum’s rejection of the arbitrariness of the banning of slaughtering horses for food is generalized, he would be arguing that since some animals can be made to suffer for purposes of medical knowledge and food, all animals can be made to suffer for such purposes. To the contrary, if one holds that some cruelty laws are justified, then there should be no arbitrary exclusions from them—they should cover all animals.

But to return to horses: Sullum’s claim that the protection of horses from slaughter is arbitrary in a country that slaughters other species for food is hard to dispute. But, at the same time it is not particularly telling as an argument against the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, even if provides an easy opportunity to ridicule the bills supporters. That some animals have special places in human lives and so receive special protections from exploitation is in part a compromise we make with our intuitive sense that animals are not mere things. It is undoubtedly arbitrary but in the same way that our preference for the interests of our friends and family over strangers is arbitrary.

If nothing else, proponents will argue, passage of this bill will lessen (in however small a way) the suffering of some animals—and that by itself would make this a good law–which does not seem to be the same thing as arguing:

>Horses are nice. Killing them for food is mean. This is the gist of the argument for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

5 thoughts on “Relativism at the heart of Reason

  1. you have put horses under the livestock category. horses are not raised here for food. they are pets and athletic partners. other countries eat dogs yet, you do not see any slaughter houses in the US providing dog meat to them.
    i do not own a horse but have in the past. my issue is the illegal inhumane transport to slaughter and the inhume way of slaughtering them. its a fact that most of the horses going to slaughter are healthy and not old. i am not here to tell other countries what to do – hindu’s think we are barbaric for eating cows. thats not the issue!the issue is to stop the inhumane transport and slaughter of U.S. horses. most of which will easily reabsorb into the horse community because as i said, most are healthy! the pro-slaughetr side tends to see the thin and old and cripple horses – many of which were injured in transport – the meat buyers dont want them. irresposible horse owners should be held accountable for the thin and neglected or cripple that they send to avoid the cost to humanely euthanise – which is about the price of what it would be to feed them for another month. and should the bill pass – i for one will refocus my efforts towards those irresposnsible horse owners. (i am not affiliated) has some very good information and true stories worth seeing to atleast give you something to think about. there are many more sites out there but that one is off the top of my head.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    Just to be clear, the question that is raised by the author of the op-ed piece in Reason magazine is whether the designation of horses as non-livestock is arbitrary and unjustified. (And presumably he would raise the same question about dogs).

    I think that the arbitrariness of this distinction (a) is not an argument against the Horse Slaughter Act and (b) cuts in the direction of the moral unjustifiability of the distinction between livestock and non-livestock.

    The welfare argument in favor of the HSA is, as you point out, the real justification that proponents hold and not the silly straw man argument that Sullum argues against.

    Though to be fair, the welfare argument does not really justify the HSA as such, but only the need to provide stringent protections for animals on their way to slaughter, something that is needed for all animals as transport conditions to slaughterhouses are not federally regulated.

  3. This bill should be passed as it protects the rights of horse owners from being swindled by the slaughter buyers, the hrose thieves (horse theft rates are up). This bill will also cause breeders from overbreeding if they want the prices to remain reasonably high. As we know, it’s all about supply and demand that dictates the prices of a “product” (look at oil). This bill will also (along with education) cause owners to think about the responsibilities of owning a horse or horses. It really won’t affect one way or another the issues of abuse or neglect. There will always be people who practice this type of behavoior. It is wrong for one country to impose their morals upon another, but at the same time, it is wrong for another country to come into this one and impose their cultural customs on the people of this country. We are talking about the 70-90% of the U>S> citizens who oppose horse slaughter that is spurring this bill. For respected groups (AMVA and AEVP) to stand there and say that they oppose this bill without actually polling their own membership is over stepping their boundaries. Personally, those in the Ag sector need to get to the bottom of the BSE (mad cow) disease that is in this country instead of sticking their noses into the equine sector… and by the way, I believe it was the AEVP or AMVA that classified the horse as a “companion animal” while in the same breath said it’s ok to slaughter them. The USDA does not treat horse meat in the same manner as they do beef, sheep . Horse meat is inspected under the exotic meats regulations (not as stringent as food animals) and although there have been at least 94 deaths as a result of eating horse meat, the EU and USDA still claims that it is all fit for human consumption. Now we get into the medications that are routinely used on horses which makes the meat unfit for human consumption. Bute as it is known in the equine community is a known carcinogen and the worm medications come with a clearly marked label stateing that it is not intended for use on animals for human consumption.

    The main argument is what is the difference between horse, cow and lamb? Horses are “companion animals”.

  4. This Bill is a BAD bill for all horse owners.

    That bill will leave me and you and every other horse owner free to have our constitutional rights violated. That bill calls for UNWARRENTED search AND seizure of your horses. All they have to do is SUSPECT that you are transporting a sore/lame horse. and in fact it does not even define what they consider a sore horse. so that 23 year old arthritic horse you are transporting to the vet for a check up could cause you to have your horse seized.

    The Bill ALSO does not address what to do with the 80,000 plus horses currently being slaughtered each year. They deffinately are NOT going to slaughter that many for cheap pet and zoo food so what happens to the rest? And finally it will NOT stop slaughter totally, This slaughter debate will continue as long as there is a market for horse meat in dog food and zoos around the world.

    Even if you are really Anti- slaughter and want to see slaughter stopped, you really should read this bill and see how it will affect YOU personally as a horse owner. This particular bill is poorly written and does not take into account several things. If you want to see It passed I suggest that you call and ask for changes to the wording. Don’t allow yourselves (and the rest of us) to have our constitutional rights violated. Heck if you got the wording changed I might even help support it, but as it stands this bill will give horse owners way more problems then it will solve.

  5. Anna: I don’t see how the following text violates our constitution:

    `(1) The Secretary may detain for examination, testing, or the taking of evidence–

    (A) any horse at any horse show, horse exhibition, or horse sale or auction that is sore or that the Secretary has probable cause to believe is sore; and

    (B) any horse or other equine that the Secretary has probable cause to believe is being shipped, transported, moved, delivered, received, possessed, purchased, sold, or donated in violation of section 5(8).’.

    And if it does, then it is the job of the Courts to determine this. As I read it, it grants the authority to examine and investigate suspected violations of this law. Nothing in the constitution forbids such a thing. The law states precisely the cause that would justify the Secretary from investigating.

    The bill may cause other problems for Horse owners, but I see no reason to believe that the law must “do something” about the 80,000 horses slaughtered each year. All it does is prevent their slaughter for the purposes of selling their flesh for food. The burden is presumably placed on the horse owners who have the responsibility for these animals.

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