21 December 2003

Deconstructing My Egg Carton

My egg carton has a number of alluring (and cryptic) phrases, but only one of them, so far as I can tell, has moral significance.

The logo depicts a farmhouse with the words "FARMHOUSE EGGS" above and below it. One might be tempted, upon reading this, to think of a cozy henhouse with straw-filled nests and pleasant roosts, but a farmhouse is not a henhouse. The egg farm near my childhood home in Vassar, Michigan, had a farmhouse, and believe me, there were no henhouses on the premises. It was chicken hell.

The logo says "ALL NATURAL" and "HAND GATHERED." It's not clear what the former expression refers to. "Natural" usually contrasts with "artificial." Eggs aren't artificial, so they must be natural. It's natural for hens, even factory-farmed hens, to lay eggs. The latter expression, I think, is meant to mislead. The eggs in the egg farm near my childhood home were hand gathered by either the sons of the proprietor or hired help. When laid, the eggs rolled downward on a wire mesh. Someone came by once or twice a day to "gather" them by hand. The term "gathered" suggests an egg basket carried by a farmer's wife clad in an apron.

On the left of the carton it says, "From Natural Grain Fed / Free Roaming Nesting Hens." How or what the chickens are fed seems irrelevant to how they're treated, and therefore morally irrelevant. The chickens in the egg farm near my childhood home were fed grain. Was it natural? It's not clear what that means. Grain is natural as opposed to artificial, so the word "natural" may add nothing but favorable emotive meaning to the term. Lots of products in grocery stores have "natural" in their title. Natural is good.

The only phrase that's morally relevant, in my view, is "Free Roaming Nesting Hens." The main complaint about factory egg farms is that the chickens are kept in cramped quarters. If they're free-roaming, that would vastly improve the quality of their lives. But who knows what "roaming" means? Does it mean the chickens have the run of an enclosure? Perhaps they have only a little more room than the chickens in factory farms—room to turn around, for example. But any more room to move about is good, morally speaking. PETA certainly thinks so.

Someone might say, upon reading this, that I'm naive. "Do you believe that stuff, Keith? Sheesh!" But why shouldn't I? I have no reason to disbelieve it. If I can't believe what it says on an egg carton, why should I believe what it says on any product container? Should I believe that the computer I purchased has an eighty-gigabyte hard drive in it, or that it was put together in Austin, Texas, simply because it says those things on the box? Maybe I should conduct a personal investigation. I should go to the place where the eggs are produced and see for myself what "free roaming" means. Is that reasonable? Wouldn't it require that I conduct personal investigations of the soy products I buy? After all, why believe it when it says "Meatless Fat Free Slices" on my Deli Slices? Why believe it when it says "Meat Free Soy Protein Links" on my Smart Dogs? This sort of skepticism sweeps too broadly.

"But why eat eggs at all?" you ask. "Even if you're right that the chickens from whom these eggs came were free roaming, it doesn't follow that no suffering was involved." I agree. I'm not doing the best I can. But I'm doing better than if I ate any old eggs, as I did until recently. I'm doing less than the best—by my own standards—but not nothing. You can criticize me for not doing my best as long as you also praise me for doing something. To criticize me for not doing my best is to imply that morality is all or nothing—that there is no morally relevant difference between eating any old eggs and eating eggs from free-roaming hens.

Imagine if we adopted that attitude in other realms. If you're not playing in the major leagues, you may as well not play baseball. If you're not doing everything you can for your spouse, you're acting immorally. If you're causing any animal suffering at all, you may as well be skinning cats alive for the fun of it.