What would ethical egg production look like? And how would we get there?
To make the point of the previous post a little more concrete, let’s think about what truly ethical egg production would look like from a “moral vegetarian” perspective. Remember, the moral vegetarian isn’t opposed to all forms of animal use, but opposes those uses that constitute exploitation (i.e., harm the interests of the animals involved).
It seems that, for egg production to be ethical (i.e., non-exploitative), it would have to meet at least these conditions:
- hens have access to the outdoors and the space and opportunity to engage in natural behavior;
- no debeaking;
- no forced molting;
- no routine killing of male chicks; and
- hens are allowed to live out something approximating a natural life span.
As the Humane Society points out, the most common labels that consumers might take to indicate a higher standard of treatment (“free range,” “cage free,” “organic,” etc.) permit at least some of these practices, and in only some cases do they require third-party auditing of compliance. Only eggs labeled “Animal Welfare Approved” are produced in ways that avoid most of these objectionable practices; yet, as HSUS says, “there are no participating producers that sell to supermarkets.” (Though the Animal Welfare Approved website lists participating producers from whom you can buy directly.)
So, it seems that for the moral vegetarian, the goal should be to support egg producers that meet, or are at least moving toward meeting, standards like the Animal Welfare Approved ones. The question, then, is: are they doing that by buying, say, “cage-free” eggs (as I do myself from time to time)? Does buying cage-free eggs serve to nudge producers in the direction of more stringent standards? Or does it send a signal that cage-free is enough and consumers won’t demand anything further?
In light of Tzachi Zamir’s argument, it’s a question of whether this is a case of selective consumption that supports progress or one that leads to moral complacency. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is here, but I’d feel better if I was more sure it was the former.
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