In my Verdict column for this week, I write about the presumed impact of "ag-gag" laws that aim to prevent and punish undercover investigation and exposure of conditions within animal agriculture. I analyze the complicated relationship between the concealment of what animals endure, and the consumption of the products that are taken from farmed animals. I suggest that one cannot attribute consumer ignorance entirely to industry efforts, and one must accordingly address not only consumers' ignorance about the realities of farmed animals but also consumers' desire to remain ignorant.
In this post, I want to take up a related issue that often arises in discussions that I and other vegans have with non-vegans and vegan-curious folks about the consumption of animal products besides flesh, such as eggs. What seems to bother some people most about the cruelty associated with egg production is the waste of animals' lives. Here, for example, is a composite of some conversations I have had:
NV (non-vegan): What's wrong with eating eggs? Is it because of conditions on factory farms? I eat my neighbors' backyard hens' eggs, so I don't support those conditions.
M (me): Factory farms are horrendous, of course, but all eggs involve tremendous cruelty and slaughter. Consider three features of all egg farming, regardless of who the farmer is.
First, when layer hens stop producing enough eggs to pay their way, they are sent to slaughter, usually at around two years old or earlier.
Second, layer hens have been bred to produce more than ten times as many eggs as their natural ancestors, the red jungle fowl. As a result, hens suffer brittle bones and other effects of calcium depletion, not to mention the painful conditions that occur because of their so frequently having to push eggs out of their bodies -- including uterine prolapse.
Third and finally, half of the "layer" chicks that hatch are male. Layer hens are bred for laying rather than for the grotesquely rapid growth for which their "broiler" relatives have been bred so they can be slaughtered when they are only seven weeks old. Male layers are thus useless to the industry. They are therefore "sexed" (separated from the females) after they hatch and then promptly killed, usually by suffocation or by being ground up alive in a macerator (grinder). This happens at the hatcheries that supply even your neighbor's backyard hens.
NV: That's disgusting! I was curious about what happened to all of the rooster chicks, but I figured they were kept for meat. Why don't they use them for meat? It's just wrong to treat them like garbage. It's such a waste.I am somewhat heartened by conversations like this, because people do seem to find the wholesale killing of baby chicks disturbing. Learning about this aspect of egg production seems to clarify for non-vegans one of my reasons for avoiding eggs. The reason I say that I am only "somewhat heartened" however, is that the premise of their reaction to the revelation about what happens to male chicks, is that the problem is not that someone is killing these animals but that no one is subsequently eating them.
In other words, the suffering and death of such animals strikes many people as objectionable mainly because of the waste entailed, rather than because it is cruel and deprives living animals of their lives.
People do in fact feel compassion for the baby roosters, so it is not that they are indifferent to cruelty and simply want people to eat the baby animals' corpses. It is instead something about the combination of killing with waste that bothers many people. This combination resonates as well with what I recall were people's reactions to the mass killing of cows in England who were suspected of carrying Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) -- people felt great sympathy for the cows, who were dying without anyone getting nourished as a result.
To get a sense of why I have found this reaction somewhat disconcerting, consider the following analogy. Two notorious convicted serial killers are Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Both of these men murdered their victims. Dahmer, however, also ate parts of his victims' remains. So far as I know, however, no one ever said "Well, Jeffrey Dahmer was pretty terrible, but at least he did not allow the victims' flesh to go to waste. At least he ate them, and you have to give him some credit for that."
Far from redeeming his behavior, Dahmer's decision to cannibalize his victims' remains seem to add a whole dimension of culpability to his violence.
Before leaving the topic of human cannibalism, however, we should consider a different scenario: that of the lifeboat. A group of men is lost at sea in a lifeboat and realizes that everyone will die of starvation if some do not resort to cannibalism. After coming to this conclusion, several of the men kill one of their number and then devour his remains. This scenario is undoubtedly unappetizing for most of us (even non-vegans), but -- by contrast to the case of Jeffrey Dahmer -- it likely elicits some sympathy and understanding in addition to the disgust. We can say of the killing on the lifeboat that it is, if not fully justified, at least excusable or substantially mitigated by the extreme attendant circumstances. What makes us regard this example so differently from that of a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer is that the starvation that prevailed on the lifeboat and the consequent need for nourishment, in whatever form, appears to make the killing necessary.
What does necessity have to do with anything? When a person kills a rooster and then eats his flesh, people perceive the killing as necessary, because it permitted the person to nourish himself. When a person kills a rooster and then throws his remains in the garbage instead, many people perceive the killing of the animal as wasteful and accordingly experience a sense of outrage on the rooster's behalf. There was no good reason for this animal to have to die, and it was therefore a wrongful killing. Killing the chicken was unnecessary.
I do understand the necessity argument, but I find it unpersuasive when applied to these facts. For just about everyone who consumes chickens and/or chickens' eggs, killing a rooster is unnecessary. Why? Because we do not need to eat chickens or eggs or other animals or animal products. Whether we throw the slaughtered rooster into the garbage or into an oven, we have accordingly killed an animal unnecessarily.
Many imagine that it is better to consume animals as food than as fur, for example, because we need to eat but we do not need to wear fur. Again, however, this analysis operates at a deceptively high level of generality. We do need to eat, of course, but we do not need to eat animals or their reproductive secretions any more than we need to eat human flesh. Accordingly, when we do eat those things instead of the bountiful and delicious plant-based foods that we could be eating instead, we inflict needless, wasteful suffering and death on innocent, sentient animals.
To return to the cannibalism analogy, when we eat animal products, we are for more like Jeffrey Dahmer than we are like the men on the lifeboat. The latter have no alternative to violence if they are to meet their need for nourishment. We, by contrast, have a choice.