Everyday Ethics

When I
posted “Grist For The
” a few days ago, I expected it to be controversial. You can’t talk about the sad practice of grinding up male baby chicks in egg hatcheries and say you still plan to eat eggs afterward without stirring up some outrage. I
expected – and got – a few nasty personal attacks. What I didn’t expect was the
wealth of wonderful commentary that helped expand my thinking on the issue and
deepen my ethical pondering (to the point where I’m considering making some
real lifestyle changes down the road). 

I originally
said, “this is one time when I see an ethical issue as a question of
absolutes.” Now that I’ve read what y’all had to say? Not so much.  

commenter in particular – “YN” – made such thoughtful and passionate
arguments (though ALL the comments were incredibly eye-opening, and provided,
if you’ll forgive the punny metaphor, great food for thought, so I want to
thank everyone who wrote in) that I contacted him and asked him if he’d
consider writing up a counter-argument to my piece. I wanted a different
perspective – a vegetarian perspective – to have some ‘air-time’ on the blog.
Here’s what YN originally wrote:

I’m currently pescetarian – meaning I do eat eggs.
But this kind of brutality makes me want to stop eating eggs. I don’t even want
to watch the video; a description suffices.

There’s no reason for cruelty in this process,
except for two factors. Industrial farming demands profit maximization, so the
cheapest method of disposing of profit-harming male chicks is chosen. They are
not going to spend the money or effort to minimize pain there.

More obviously problematic is how humans amplify
cruelty in settings of institutionalized wrongdoing. Since we don’t deal well
with cognitive dissonance, we tend to “double down” on cruel
practices to tell ourselves that it really is okay to be cruel to group X. We
say, “since we have already decided that it is fine to kill animals for
food, there is nothing wrong with being sadistic about it – they have no rights
or feelings anyway.” It is part of an attempt to justify the initial
choice by reinforcing the idea that the targets of our acts are just objects.

So I disagree that there is a binary choice here.
We may rationally decide that eggs do not suffer and therefore it is okay to
eat them, while demanding from the industry that they do not consequently
mistreat chicks. For instance, a meat eater may very well choose to only
purchase eggs and poultry from sources that prove they behave more humanely.
Male chicks could be raised for meat and butchered as humanely as possible,
even if that is not the most profitable method. Consumers are willing to pay a
premium for an ethical supply chain, whether it be greener cars or recycled
products or organic food.

And here is YN’s further
perspective on the issue of eating eggs.

YN: There are many possible ethical choices
between the extremes of being vegan and being willing to eat anything, no
matter how cruel the practice. Our empathetic and moral instincts come in
many flavors, but we did not really evolve to have consistently logical ethical
values. (For instance, most Americans are raised with cute depictions of cows,
pigs, and chickens, and have no problem eating them, but most would feel
disgusted at the idea of eating a family pet.) Personally, I don’t find that
too problematic. My goal is not necessarily to have the purest and most
consistent set of internal values possible; rather it is to try to gradually
cultivate habits aimed at improving my practical impact on the world. So,
whether or not anyone else makes the exact same choices as me isn’t important. I
would be happy to see consumers continue to eat animals and animal products, as
long as they become educated about industry practices and demand a reasonable
level of humane treatment of agricultural animals.

Since the
dawn of civilization, humans have lived by codes of ethics that demanded
respectful and relatively painless butchering of food animals. It is only in
the past century that highly industrialized capitalism has turned not only the
moment of killing, but also the entire life-spans of these animals, into a
brutally efficient machine for minimizing costs of production. But consumer
demand drives our economy, and if people are educated and given a real choice
of humanely-raised meat, milk, and eggs, the businesses that deliver those will
flourish.  People want not only less cruel food, but also food that tastes
better, is healthier, and is better for the environment and for local
businesses. These improvements may increase the cost of food in some respects, but
there are also a vast number of externalized costs of the current industrial
food system that we can cut so we can all save money. (N.B. All the points in
this paragraph are derived from Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,”
which I recommend to anyone interested in more detail.)

where does this all leave us when it comes to eggs? Upon further research for
this follow-up, I have found that even “cage-free” and “free
range” eggs mostly come from huge industrial operations that cram hens together
almost as tightly as caged egg producers. They still inflict painful de-beaking,
disease, and the mass killing of male chicks. Egg-laying hens have been bred to
lay so many eggs in a year that their bodies are spent in a year, and they,
too, get killed and turned into low-quality meat products. Until we get
effective regulations that give consumers a way to know for sure that labels
like “organic” or “free range” really guarantee to the
consumer that humane treatment has occurred, I will cultivate a new habit of
avoiding eggs in my diet. It will probably take me a year to wean myself off of
eggs and to learn good substitutes, but unless reliable sources of humanely
raised eggs appears in my local markets, this is where I will draw the new line
for myself.

YN also asked me to
draw attention to an article on providing an interesting take on
the “l
ogical inconsistencies and
dissociation in the words and deeds of “humane” meat advocates,”
 so here is the link for anyone interested in further reading. 

Have more to add to the discussion? Suggestions on further reading or actions we consumers can take to improve the ethics we apply to our food supply system? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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