Leiden Law Blog

Food for thought

Food for thought

Over the past few weeks the meat scandal has received worldwide attention. Horsemeat appears to be used in many more meat products than was presumed. Animal-loving children riding on horseback grew up with the intention of never eating horsemeat in their lives. Now as adults, they are disgusted by the idea of eating horsemeat and therefore they are upset when they discover that  some labels on meat products do not indicate that the products contain horsemeat. The meat scandal perfectly illustrates the irrational distinctions we make between species and how it influences the way we treat those different kinds of animals. In this regard we should not be primarily focused on the labels on meat products, but on the ethical matter of making distinctions between species in the first place. To start with the distinction between humans and non-human animals.

An unpleasant equalization

Some readers might already have stopped reading because of the previous sentence. Most people do not like being equated to ‘animals’. Humans prefer to think of themselves as morally superior to other living creatures in the world. But as a matter of fact, Darwin already showed us a long time ago that we, humans, are just another species, like horses or cows. It might seem unnecessary to repeat Darwin’s findings here, but it is essential because the current treatment of non-human animals is not in accordance with the logical implications of Darwin’s findings. Non-human animals are  tortured and stuffed with food throughout their lives, and then eventually slaughtered for consumption. Laboratory animals are intentionally exposed to severe pain, just to make sure that the latest cleaning solution will not irritate our human hands. Thus, humans treat non-human animals like objects on a great scale. On what do we base this barbaric treatment, the like of which we would never consider inflicting on human beings?

Superior species

An argument often heard is that humans are allowed to use other animals to their ends because humans possess some capabilities that other animals do not have. For example, the capability of speech or reason. This difference in capabilities justifies the way in which we treat animals nowadays – as some people argue. This way of reasoning is highly dangerous. To distinguish Creature X from Creature Y based on these characteristics in order to determine what kind of treatment they ‘deserve’, may also justify mistreatment of creatures who, for example, lack the characteristic of having a white skin colour or blue eyes. In addition, as Peter Singer pointed out, the distinction based on speech or reason is not in accordance with common practice. After all, creatures who lack these capabilities, like babies and comatose patients, are not excluded from human treatment.

The ‘Ability to Suffer’ criterion

Thus one must think of another reason why it is morally justified to kick a stone down the road, but not to kick a human being. The best justification for the distinction I can think of was introduced by Jeremy Bentham: ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ Suffering should be the only criterion on which we can base a distinction between things that need to be treated with care and things that can be freely used to ones end. It should be clear that, as horses and cows both can suffer, they both need protection against barbaric treatment. We should not be bothered that our lasagne or Ikea-meatballs contain horsemeat instead of cow- or pig meat. We should be bothered about mistreating and eating things on this planet that are capable of suffering as such.


Jan Pieter Veerman
Posted by Jan Pieter Veerman on April 10, 2013 at 03:21

Has anyone addressed the matter of cannibalism? I remember a French cartoon in which a passer-by looks into the window of “Restaurant >Le Cannibale< ” In the window is displayed the naked body of a dead man. Whether this would entice one to enter and sample the fare is anybody’s guess. JPV

Tony Rothschild
Posted by Tony Rothschild on March 26, 2013 at 11:51

I find this article interesting on two points that no one has mentioned yet, and that is Religion and behavior. As a Jew, it is mentioned in the Old Testament that all animals are sacred in G-D eyes. So much so that the testament states,” the head of the household must feed and water the beast of burden before himself, and before retiring” this also falls in with the way the food is slaughtered, as most people may know, and it is to minimize any suffering on the animal. In the Jewish law certain animals are forbidden, pigs, camels, shellfish etc because of their physical characteristics, cloven hoof and scales, the list goes on. So not only does the horse fall in that category, I find the very thought of eating it disgusting. There is the question of certain animals that come under the ‘behavior’ heading like guide dogs for the blind, search and rescue and sniffer dogs for drugs, are these unintelligent, would we eat them,I dont think so, in fact they are more intelligent than us humans. I also get pissed off when someone says ” they are behaving like animals” let me tell you, I could spend the next year eliminating people I know and have seen that are far inferior in speech, mental attitude and respect to other ‘normal’ humans, so the debate goes on, and that is probably the only point that us humans can do that animals cant!

Janneke Vink
Posted by Janneke Vink on March 22, 2013 at 00:31

First of all, I’d like to thank you (‘Publius’) for exposing a couple of arguments that are often used in favour of eating meat. I’d like to show that some of these arguments like ‘‘our teeth are designed to eat meat’’ and ‘‘if it is wrong for us to eat meat, we should just as well drag lions to court for murdering other animals’’ might be attractive at first sight, but cannot hold when being closer examined. In doing so, I will respond to your four points of critique.

1. In contrast to what has been argued, I am not addressing the case that some children or grown-ups do eat horsemeat while having vowed not to. My point is to illustrate the irrational distinctions people sometimes make between living creatures, like those people who do rather not eat horsemeat or, for example ‘young animals’ like lams or calves, but at the same time do not bother eating (full-grown) cows, chickens or pigs.

2. From the fact that humans and non-human animals are both species and that they are both capable of suffering, it does not follow that they either are both (legally) liable or both are not. This statement is wrongly being attributed to my article. Legal liability is still a case determined by accountability. So indeed, the hungry lion who did murder a gazelle must not be put to trial due to the lack of accountability.

In addition: the practical fact that our teeth are provided to eat meat does not inflict the moral point of view I defend because it does not provide us with a moral reason to treat animals the way we currently do. One must be careful in deducting moral rules from the supposedly purpose of the human body. If we start doing that, we neither could morally accept, for example, homosexuality, could we?

The practical objection presented, viz. that our human body indisputably needs meat in order to function well, can be disproved by the simple fact that many vegetarians around the world can live a healthy life while eating no meat at all. The argument that humans cannot live without eating meat on a regular basis was outdated a long time ago.

3. It is true that babies have the potential to reason and speak at some later stage. This fact, however, does not affect the argument that the distinction based on (so you wish: the potential of) speech or reason is not reflected in the current treatment of for example comatose patients and mute persons. It should be clear that the point I’m addressing is that making distinctions based on these kinds of capabilities is dangerous and should be avoided at all.

My argument presented here does not interfere with abortion- and euthanasia-issues, since my main issue is to emphasize the basic similarity between humans and other ‘animals’. Arguments in favour of or against abortion or euthanasia, based on (the lack of) capability to speak or reason of a person, cannot be deducted from my article, since the distinction based on speech and reason is the exact thing I am rejecting.

4. The distinction between pain and suffering is very important indeed. The presumption that suffering only contains mental ‘pain’, however, is a false one. The suffer-criterion I am referring to involves not only mental pain, but physical pain as well. I think it is undisputed that all creatures humans refer to as ‘animals’ can suffer in the meaning of the term as just explained.

It seems to me that there is no moral justification for using animals as objects and making them suffer, like which is currently the case on great scale. If one might think of one, I’d love to hear it.

Posted by Publius on March 21, 2013 at 14:45

The authors article is interesting, but she misses the mark on quite a few points.
First of all, the author claims that young children grow up vowing to never eat horsemeat, but this claim is rather dubious. In the Netherlands, nearly all children grow up eating the frikadel, debatably the Netherlands’ most popular fried snack. It is a commonly known fact that this dish contains at least 5% horsemeat. In other countries, such as France or Italy, horsemeat is an essential part of the diet. It is factually false to assume that these children did not intend to eat horsemeat, they obviously did.
Secondly the author equates man to animal in all senses, not merely the biological sense. This must mean that man and beast are morally equal as well. This can only lead to two possible conclusions: either both man and beast can be held morally accountable or neither can. If both can be held accountable, we must punish the hungry lion that eats a gazelle or the untamed dog that bites a small child. If neither man nor beast can be held morally accountable, the authors point is moot because humans cannot be held accountable for how they treat animals. One may claim that a lion cannot choose not to eat meat, but neither can man: our front teeth were designed to cut meat, our intestines to digest both plants and meat and out bodies need iron and vitamin B which are mostly found in meat. We are biologically speaking not herbivores but omnivores.
Thirdly, the author addresses the point discrimination between man and animal based on their ability to speak or reason, and presents it as if it were a fallacy using the example of babies and the comatose. To this I have three things to say: first of all the issue with babies is not that they are at the moment incapable of reason, but that they are potentially able of reason. Secondly, I wonder what the authors stance on abortion is. After all, isn’t the main argument of the pro-choice movement that the unborn are incapable of reason and speech and thus not human? Third of all I have to wonder if the author was completely oblivious to the debate surrounding euthanasia. Again, in this debate the main argument of the pro-euthanasia movement is exactly that the comatose are incapable of speech and reason and will most likely never regain it.
Fourth of all, the author claims animals are capable of suffering. I have to wonder how she can conclude a thing modern biology is still in doubt about. What the author fails to do is apply the distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is purely physical, suffering on the other hand is mental. The very ability to reason, the very ability that the author called so insignificant beforehand, is what determines whether or not an organism can suffer. The author is not only factually wrong, but she’s contradicting herself as well.
Therefore we can see that the authors arguments fails to convince. Her arguments are in conflict with human nature, contemporary modern biology and logic.
No animals were harmed in the production of this paper.

Paul Cliteur
Posted by Paul Cliteur on March 15, 2013 at 10:00

Well indeed, “some readers might already have stopped reading because of the previous sentence. Most people do not like being equated to ‘animals’”.

Not this reader (or let me say: “this animal”)! What an excellent analysis!

I also recommend on this topic Floris van den Berg’s forthcoming book “Philosophy for a better world” (Prometheus books, Buffalo 2013) and Bastiaan Rijpkema’s and Machteld Zee’s new book “Bij de beesten af” (Prometheus, Amsterdam 2013).

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