Slow Solutions From Fast Food

So that I show my contradictions on this morning’s post, consider this decision by Burger King:

In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a “historic advance,” Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates.

The company said that it would also favor suppliers of chickens that use gas, or “controlled-atmospheric stunning,” rather than electric shocks to knock birds unconscious before slaughter. It is considered a more humane method, though only a handful of slaughterhouses use it.

The goal for the next few months, Burger King said is for 2 percent of its eggs to be “cage free,” and for 10 percent of its pork to come from farms that allow sows to move around inside pens, rather than being confined to crates. The company said those percentages would rise as more farmers shift to these methods and more competitively priced supplies become available.

This is invariably good. Less animal suffering while they’re alive is the correct action. Welfarist animal policy can promote a valid marginal gain.

But the animals will still die. Does it matter significantly to the chicken that it’s gassed¹ before it dies? Of course it suffers less, but it still dies. And how significant will the change be if we’re talking 2 percent of Burger King’s eggs and 10 percent of its pork? That still leaves 98 percent and 90 percent of animals, respectively, facing the same amount of suffering. Will this be a one-time improvement, or will there be a continual push to reduce the amount of suffering? The answer isn’t clear.

I found the link to this story at the Daily Dish, where Andrew Sullivan wrote this about the decision:

I’m a McDonalds fan, but I’m switching. The more of us do it, the more likely it is that the rest of the food industry will follow Burger King’s lead.

In the past, Mr. Sullivan wrote about the moral implications of using animals for food. He was honest about the qualm he has with how animals are treated, specifically pigs because of their intelligence. Yet he’s also stated that “it should be possible to remain carnivorous and more humane than we currently are.” Now we see the effect of the welfarist approach. How likely is Mr. Sullivan to align² his views and habits further now that he has a way to ease his moral qualm? I’m not suggesting that guilt is appropriate, but there are consequences to providing such moral escape clauses.

I appreciate what the welfarist approach can do. I’m just not overly thrilled at such half-measures. For example, with routine infant circumcision, anything that reduces suffering should be implemented. But I will not cheer increased use of analgesic creams and dorsal blocks, which should be standard even though they are insufficient. The case against routine infant circumcision is not that the child suffers during the surgery and the healing time after. It is important in the debate, but it is not primary. What the child is being denied for the rest of his life, without his consent, is the problem. No amount of compassion diminishes this. The drawbacks of the welfarist argument allows parents to feel better about “their” decision, and consequently think less about the lifelong consequences. Kids will suffer who may not have faced the knife if their parents had been forced to confront the full ramifications of their actions.

Positive changes are useful and should not be abandoned solely because the results won’t live up the hope. They’re just not enough and should be seen as incomplete.

¹ If you eat that chicken, wouldn’t you then eat some of that gas? Consider this article titled Beef diet ‘damages sons’ sperm’ discussing the impact of pregnant women eating beef raised with “growth promoting chemicals”. (Link via Julian Sanchez.)

² I’m not trying to pick on Mr. Sullivan on this. This rationale is not exclusive to him, nor am I perfect in this in the ways it applies to my life.