Foer begins by establishing that eating does is considered taboo in our culture, despite some obvious difficulties with this position. He notes that even people who take a “macho” (25) stance towards eating meat are sentimental about dogs, and adds that dogs have no inherent characteristics that set them apart from other animals. He goes on to note that dogs are not considered special animals in ever culture; indeed, no animal is considered sacred or taboo in every culture.
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Foer then considers some hypothetical arguments against eating dogs: that one should not eat companion animals (25), that one should not eat mentally sophisticated animals (25-26), and that one ought to respect taboos (26). Foer answers them, in part by reiterating points previously made: dogs are not companion animals everywhere, dogs are no more mentally sophisticated than many other animals, and the taboo on eating dogs is local, limited to our culture. He further gives a brief history of eating dogs, and finally considers the practical implications of adopting canines as a food animal (26-28).
There are a number of objections to Foer’s argument. First, his argument against the dog-eating taboo as such does not take into account the actual workings of taboos. A taboo may be culturally relative, and yet still important to maintain. By way of analogy, the details of the incest taboo are culturally relative: although marriages between first cousins currently fall under the taboo in America, it was very common in the past for first cousins to marry, and still is in many parts of the world. It does not follow that Americans should cast off the prohibition on cousin marriage. Doing so would run the risk of relaxing the incest taboo as a whole, and weakening America’s general moral fabric. To use another analogy, it’s arbitrary that we drive on the right side of the road, but it’s very important that we do so.
If we press the analogy with incest further, we see that weakening the taboo on eating dogs could indeed cause great harm. For many people, the love of a dog is their introduction to affection for animals, their gateway, in a sense, to seeing the animal world as something other than objects for us to use. Making dogs a food object would make it impossible for many people to have those feelings for animals, would encourage people to see all nonhumans as simply resources for our consumption. Although Foer seems to be suggesting that looking critically, rather than sentimentally, at dogs will encourage us to treat existing food animals better, it’s just as likely it might just make us treat other animals worse.
Second, his notion that dog could be adopted as a food animal seems flawed. Dogs are carnivorous animals, and thus aggressive. This would make them more difficult to raise as farm animals, unlike the herbivorous animals (cows, pigs, sheep) that we do raise in this fashion. Vicious dogs are very dangerous, and this would make raising them an expensive, difficult affair. Furthermore, because they are carnivores, their food supply would be harder to obtain than the plant food fed to cows and chickens. Foer suggests that the large supply of stray animals currently being euthanized in shelters would be our source, rather than deliberately farmed dogs (28). This would put the dog supply at the mercy of chance, because there might not be an adequate supply of dog in one’s area at any given time. This might allow dogs to be used as an occasional luxury item, but rules out using them as a regular food source. Moreover, stray dogs are likely to have diseases making them unsuitable for eating.
Having said that, Foer’s argument should encourage us to think critically about not only dogs but also the other animals we eat. It may be true that our sentimental feelings about dogs should not be discouraged solely on the grounds of their being sentimental; this does not mean we should not extend those feelings to the other creatures we eat. However, we should do so with the understanding that cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens have been food animals in our culture for a very long time, and thus we should be wary of changing our practices solely on the basis of Foer’s logical arguments. Furthermore, we should consider carefully the reasons that cows (for example) make good food animals, and dogs don’t, and consider whether our current use of them fits those reasons. For example, if cows are good food animals because grass is an inexpensive food, we should discourage feeding confined animals corn-based feed and encourage a return to grazing practices. Moreover, the use of euthanized dogs and cats in pet food should also be discouraged, for reasons sketched out above. Such modest reforms might not satisfy Foer, but would represent marked improvements in both the lives of animals and the health of all who eat them.