Update, February 28, 2015: Since writing this post, I’ve learned that there is a physical cost to hens when we take their eggs, that they will lay more eggs to replace the ones taken. So the nutrition one obtains from eggs comes at direct cost to the hens that lay them. John Mackey’s position becomes far less tenable in this light.
In the course of an ethics class I took for my Ph.D. program, I grappled with the problem that an absolutist vegan position is untenable. Mostly, I focused on the question of honey, in which we notice the abuses of bees, but not the mass killings of insects that occur whenever we drive a car, or as trucks deliver food to supermarkets. I also pointed out that some insects are a threat to human health or even to our companion animals. Finally, even focusing on bees, many of the crops which vegans eat depend on ‘enslaved’ bee pollination.
There are other problems as well:
Technically, I am not a pure vegan because I eat eggs from my own chickens. My wife and I own a place outside of Austin and we have about 30 chickens out there, free-range, organic feed, extremely well-treated from their birth to their eventual death through natural causes. I don’t have any problems eating those eggs, but it’s the only egg I eat. But otherwise I’m a vegan, including clothing and products as well.
I do not wish to offer an apology for John Mackey. The founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets is a capitalist libertarian and notoriously anti-union, offering a tired argument that it’s okay for management, but not for workers, to organize. I do wish, however, to focus on his comment about the eggs he eats from “about 30 chickens out there, free-range, organic feed, extremely well-treated from their birth to their eventual death through natural causes.”
The absolutist vegan position insists that Mackey is not a vegan and refuses to consider the matter further. For such vegans, he eats eggs and that’s the end of the story.
But those of us who are concerned about our relations with animals and our relations with each other, such a position is problematic. First, as I’ve previously noted, the social conservative jihad against abortion is rooted in racism, asserting a right to control women’s bodies in order to sustain white male hegemony. And if, in the name of accepting women as full and equal partners in our society, we accept that zygotes are not persons, that is, beings accorded ethical standing and rights, then chicken eggs are no more problematic than human eggs or embryos.
The only other possible distinction, as someone on my Friendica timeline pointed out, is the matter of choice. The woman chooses whether or not to employ contraception (and so should men). The woman chooses whether or not to have an abortion. A hen may not choose whether or not to have her eggs snatched.
Does the hen care? This seems hard to imagine. Egg-layers seem to produce an awful lot of eggs. They seem mostly concerned with eating, with socializing with each other, and with scratching in the dirt. I’m not really buying that hens care much about their eggs beyond incubating them until they hatch. The egg is not a chick until it hatches.
What, then, is the problem with John Mackey’s eggs?
The problems I’m raising are problems with absolutism. Many vegans seem to assume that no relationship between humans and non-human animals can be non-exploitive. Even companion animals have only been domesticated and bred to be dependent on humans.
But anyone who has lived with a cat, who has had a cat press her or his tail against his or her leg, who has had a cat press its forehead into their palm, knows that the relationship between humans and non-human animals cannot be reduced merely to exploitation. We co-exist on this planet. Sometimes we grow fond of each other. Sometimes we have symbiotic relationships.
The veganism I’m looking for acknowledges that love, acknowledges that symbiosis. And while I continue to criticize Mackey’s attitudes toward workers, I’ll cut him some slack with his eggs.
- David Benfell, “The inevitability of speciesism,” December 7, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/12/07/the-inevitability-of-speciesism/↩
- John Mackey, quoted in Grist, “An interview with John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods,” December 18, 20014, http://grist.org/article/little-mackey/↩
- Grist, “An interview with John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods,” December 18, 20014, http://grist.org/article/little-mackey/↩
- David Benfell, “The Quixotic Quest to Comprehend Conservatism,” March 19, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2014/03/19/the-quixotic-quest-to-comprehend-conservatism/↩